ARTISTS WE LOVE: When Aretha Sang Opera At The Grammys

When you least expect it, great moments happen. This is one of those tales made that much greater because “the moment” involves Aretha Franklin.

The year is 1998, the 40th Grammy® Awards at New York City’s majestic Radio City Music Hall.

The evening was chockful of great performances, unexpected wins and unforeseen surprises, such as:

  • Rapper Will Smith opened the night with “Men in Black” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and later gave a most moving acceptance speech for Best Rap Solo, thanking Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. for inspiring him to make music again.
  • Shawn Colvin’s acceptance speech for Song of the Year “Sunny Came Home,” was interrupted by a just-snubbed Ol’ Dirty Bastard who declared “Wu-Tang is for the children!”
  • Two versions of the same song, “How Do I Live,” released simultaneously by artists Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes, were both nominated for Best Female Country Performance. Rimes, whose record was a bigger pop hit, performed the song on the Grammy stage – but she didn’t win. It was Yearwood, whose version appeared in the action movie Con Air, who took home the award.
  • Fleetwood Mac sang a rousing medley of hits, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rumors winning Album of the Year.
  • Bob Dylan, the big winner of the night, had his performance of “Love Sick” interrupted by background dancer Michael Portnoy, who ripped off his shirt, revealing a cryptic message “SOY BOMB” scrawled on his torso. He spastically danced around the rock legend for about 30 seconds before security spirited him away.

In retrospect, the night was on the brink of chaos, according to Grammy TV producer Ken Ehrlich and none of the above was even the most stressful or satisfying moment of the night.

Luciano Pavarotti was to perform “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turandot during the Grammy’s telecast. The legendary tenor had rehearsed the day before with no issues. However, he missed dress rehearsal the day of the show, which was not unusual.

As legend has it, 10 minutes into the live broadcast, where Pavarotti was to perform about two-hours in, Ehrlich gets a message saying he needs to call the singer’s home. When he connects, Pavarotti says: “I cannot sing for you tonight, my voice is bad. I will sing for you next year.”

With blood pressure rising, Ehrlich said he thought: “That’s all well and good, but what am I going to do this year?” He now must scramble to find a performer to fill four-and-a-half minutes standing in front of a 50-piece orchestra and 30-member chorus.

Uh, does he pick Sting, who was to introduce Pavarotti? Stevie Wonder, also scheduled to perform? Then a light bulb.

Aretha Franklin, who was on the Grammy show to perform with Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and John Goodman to promote the new Blues Brothers movie, had sung “Nessun Dorma” two nights earlier at the MusiCares Person of the Year show honoring, you guessed it, Pavarotti.

Ehrlich says he ran up two flights to Franklin’s dressing room where she was sitting eating chicken. “I have a problem,” he said he uttered, explaining the issue. “How would you like to sing twice?”

“Yeah, I can do that,” the Queen of Soul reportedly calmly responded.

Pavarotti’s conductor was summoned to her dressing room where they worked 45 minutes making adjustments with key, singing along with a taped recording on a boom box. She went downstairs and performed with the Blues Brothers and later came back to the stage to stand in for Pavarotti. Ehrlich said that when Franklin saw the set up with the orchestra and chorus she remarked, “This is gonna be fun.”

The rest is Grammy history.

To say Franklin brought the house down would be an epic understatement. The audience of music superstars from all genres of music leapt to the feet in rousing, loud appreciation of her performance.

When cameras cut to individuals in the crowd – Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill, Celine Dion and Vince Gill – some were slack jawed, others near tears. Franklin took her bows, began walking off stage the wrong way, only to be waved to go the other way, all while the crowd continued their standing ovation and appreciative shouts. When she reached Sting on the other side of the stage, he kissed her hand at her arrival.

When Franklin died in 2018, that performance figured prominently in many of her obituaries and remembrances. “Ms. Franklin made it her own. Her rendition of the aria isn’t opera, but it also isn’t soul or anything easily definable. It is, simply Aretha,” wrote New York Times contributing classical music critic Joshua Barone.

Ehrlich summed up the evening this way in Billboard magazine: “I don’t think the rest of the night I ever quite recovered from that moment. I don’t mean that in a bad way, because there were some really great performances that night. But for the life of me — and I’ve produced this show for 39 years — I can’t remember who won Grammys that year. Aretha’s performance was such a moment. I don’t want to say it dwarfed the rest of the show, but it was epic.”

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