It was 30 minutes into the 1998 Grammy Awards and Gary Simmons, the assistant to the show’s co-producer, Tisha Fein, got a phone call: Luciano Pavarotti would not be performing.
The renowned opera singer was set to perform one of his most famous arias, “Nessun Dorma,” in celebration of being a Grammy Living Legend honoree that night. He had been at the rehearsal, and sounded fine. Nonetheless, Pavarotti himself was on the phone, mid-telecast, telling an assistant, “I don’t feel well, I can’t come, I sing for you next year.”
That’s the beginning of what might be the greatest singing superhero origin story, and arguably the greatest award show performance of all time: Aretha Franklin’s last-minute rendition of “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
Billboard has a fascinating oral history of that year’s show—it happens to also be the year of Soy Bomb and Ol’ Dirty Bastard crashing the stage—which naturally culminates in a can’t-believe-this-happened reflection of Franklin’s miraculous performance. Following the news of the legendary singer’s death Thursday morning, the story behind her “Nessun Dorma” triumph is one more prudent reminder of the power and scope of the legacy she leaves behind.
Franklin had been booked on the show to perform a Blues Brothers number with Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman and Jim Belushi. Two nights before, however, she had actually performed “Nessun Dorma” in honor of Pavarotti at a MusicCares dinner. The Grammys producer had an empty hole where Pavarotti’s performance was supposed to be, crossing into the third hour of the show. Could she possibly…?
Producer Ken Ehrlich ran to her dressing room and asked if she’d do it. “She said she wanted to hear the dress rehearsal,” he says. “In those days we had a boombox with a cassette. And I brought it to her and played it for her. When she heard it, she said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”
There was talk that Franklin should just perform “Natural Woman,” a guaranteed crowd pleaser. But it was Franklin’s certainty that convinced everyone, including a nervous conductor, that they could pull it off: one of the most famous opera pieces of all time, at the biggest music event of the year, live on TV, with no rehearsal.
Watch the performance again. It is breathtaking. The audience leapt to their feet as she hit that celebrated, final high B, none the wiser that she was given, according to The New Yorker, just 20 minutes notice that she would be performing. Faith Hill can be seen in the clip wiping tears from her eyes. Celine Dion is exuberantly applauding, shaking her head in disbelief at what she just watched.
As Jeff Scheftel, Recording Academy Media Production director, says, “I’ve done Greatest Moments shows, highlight shows for the Grammys, for MTV, VH1, CBS, a number of them. And that’s always in there, let me tell you. In terms of standing out, and having to come up with a performance of that magnitude in front of that many people globally—it’s just extraordinary to me, and it’s the mark of the very best. And she is.”
As it happens, 1998 was quite the year for Franklin. Months later, she would perform at VH1’s Divas Live concert, delivering a similarly history-making performance, this time of “Natural Woman,” and cementing, in our eyes, her status as the Greatest Diva of All Time.