The 1998 Grammys were the most action-packed ceremony in the show’s soon-to-be-60-year history. Aretha Franklin pinch-hit for Luciano Pavarotti at the last minute on a performance of aria “Nessun Dorma,” often ranked among the greatest in award-show history. Shawn Colvin saw her song of the year win interrupted by a just-snubbed Ol’ Dirty Bastard, memorably declaring in protest of his group’s hip-hop loss: “Wu-Tang is for the children!” And two versions of the same country song, released simultaneously as singles by LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood, were nominated in the same Grammy category — and the version performed on the show wasn’t the one that ended up winning.
All of that, plus, well, SOY BOMB. That was the message inscribed in big black letters on the chest of experimental artist and comedian Michael Portnoy, as he interrupted Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” performance to gyrate sans shirt alongside the rock legend for a full half-minute. While the event was confounding to those in attendance, and remains largely unexplained 20 years later, it stands as a pre-Nipplegate, pre-Kanye moment of amusingly harmless award-show anarchy, one which might never be possible in the same way again.
The seemingly non-stop chaos of the ‘98 Grammys stands alone 20 years later as the gold standard for unforgettable unpredictability on music’s biggest night. “We’ve had equally interesting things happening during a show [since],” recalls longtime producer Ken Ehrlich. “But probably not so many.”
Here are the events of the 40th Annual Grammy Awards — which took place at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Feb. 25, 1998 — as recalled by those who lived through its insanity.
Isaac Hanson (Hanson guitarist, performer): The Grammys, especially in the late ‘90s — they were much snobbier. It felt more like the Oscars. It was not done in a giant room, it wasn’t done in an arena, it was done at Radio City Music Hall… it wasn’t a flashy thing quite in the way it has become since then. I mean, Kelsey Grammer was hosting The Grammys.
DJ Jazzy Jeff (Will Smith producer, winner): I think the Grammys had come a long way from the first time that [Will Smith and I] were there… just through all of the stuff that we had kind of gone through, with the Grammys not acknowledging the hip-hop category [when DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1989 win went untelevised], and just watching the state of hip-hop grow to the point that now it’s probably one of the biggest categories in the Grammys. That was definitely a big leap forward.
RZA (Wu-Tang Clan rapper/producer, nominee): The cool thing, for me and my experience, was seeing hip-hop be at the pre-ceremony or a separate ceremony, and then seeing it make it to the main stage… to see it become a part of the [proper] ceremony was great, especially having Wu-Tang nominated in the 1998 Grammys.
Shawn Colvin (performer/winner): I was at the little ceremony they have to announce the nominees, and I helped to announce them. They must have known I was getting some pretty big nominations, which is why they asked me to be there. I was stunned, frankly. I mean, I didn’t consider myself a hit artist, even though “Sunny Came Home” was a hit. What did I think my chances of winning were? I didn’t really care… I was with some pretty heavy company, and not necessarily the biggest name.
Paula Cole (performer/winner): There was a lot of pressure in seven nominations, and I was a dark horse in every way, I think. I won best new artist, but I had all the big nominations, which was amazing. But it was kind of surreal, and I didn’t place too much importance on it — and having not been, like, a media junkie, I wasn’t really prepared for the red carpet, I wasn’t prepared for the fallout. I was a feminist, I had armpit hair, and everyone in America anyway made such a huge deal about it — it wasn’t any big deal anywhere else but America, with our leftover puritanical values.
Hanson: The thing I remember most about the day of the Grammys is actually that, here we were, thinking, “Sweet! We’ve got some more credibility as artists, we’ve been fighting for this, this has been challenging since people have been patting us on the head.”
I remember one of the MTV interviews, which was one of the most disappointing interviews for me — here we were on MTV, nominated for Grammys, and we’re being asked if we’re annoyed with, like, hanging out with adults, because we are a bunch of kids. Don’t we want to hang out with people our own age? And I’m sitting there going… “Ah, crap. We’re nominated for Grammys and we’re still getting asked dumb shit.”
Jeff Scheftel (Recording Academy Media Productions director): This was my very first [Grammys] in my position. And certainly my first show in New York, and if I’m not mistaken, my last show in New York until this upcoming year.
I didn’t know if all Grammy shows went like this, but there were so many extraordinary events that happened during this one show, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what must Ken Ehrlich have to do every single year? If this is any indication…”
“THEY SQUISHED US IN SOME STUPID MEDLEY”
Three of the biggest nominees on the night were Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and Sarah McLachlan, who wound up winning a combined five Grammys between them. All three were selected to perform at the Grammys, but for time reasons — and because all three performers were female singer-songwriters who had performed in the previous year’s inaugural Lilith Fair festival — they were grouped into one three-song, five-minute medley.
Tisha Fein (co-producer): That was kind of a women’s empowerment [thing]. Well, they were all nominated in the same category [best female pop vocal performance], and we sometimes kinda try to do something like that, to have some kind of integrity.
Ken Ehrlich (producer): I liked it. I’ve always liked the idea of putting people together. I thought they did pretty well. They seemed to fit together.
Cole: Oh, I hated it, I’ll be honest. Because they squished us in some stupid medley, and they thought that was television, and it was all about the producers fitting my song [“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”] into one minute and 30 seconds. And it was a piece of shit. That’s what I thought. I thought it made the music really unmusical, and it was all about a television show, and I didn’t like always being lumped into Lilith Fair. I was really different from McLachlan’s music.
Colvin: What, did we each have 45 seconds maybe to do our bit? I don’t know… I thought that was shortchanging what we were representing at that show. I didn’t see the point in lumping the girls together. I’m grateful to [the Academy], but I thought it was a little sexist.
Ehrlich: Thinking back on it today… I don’t know if I would have done that segment again. I mean, 20 years later, the idea of putting people together just because they’re women doesn’t feel as timely as it would have 20 years ago. You know, it’s not about “politically correct,” but there are better reasons to put artists together to sing together.
Cole: Whatever. I did it. I was grateful for the Grammy nomination, I was grateful for the good will. But I’m rebellious, and I didn’t like being squished into a minute and 30 seconds.
Ehrlich: Everybody wants their own moment on the Grammy awards. Sometimes 1 and 1 makes more than 2, you know. I think people have come to expect our show to do that. So I’m proud of the things we do — and no animus towards Shawn or Paula for feeling that way… but look, they got to be on music’s biggest night, and individually they might or might not have. I have personal feelings about each one of them, but I actually thought that worked out pretty well.
“WHAT THE HELL DOES ‘SOY BOMB’ MEAN?”
Bob Dylan was also one of the most-nominated artists on the evening, ultimately taking home three Grammys, including album of the year for his acclaimed comeback effort Time Out of Mind — the rock legend’s first solo win in the marquee category. But the enduring Dylan-related memory of the night came from earlier, when his performance of “Love Sick” was interrupted by Michael Portnoy, one of the extras hired to sway in the performance’s background. Portnoy decided to insert himself into the foreground, with a strange message for the world emblazoned on his chest.
Ehrlich: It happened basically because Bob’s team wanted to do this performance where fans were on stage with them. In the beginning we were reluctant to do it, but it was something they wanted to do. We said, “Hey, as long we properly screen the people, we’d be fine with it.”
Larry Campbell (guitar, Bob Dylan): There was a rehearsal run-through the afternoon of the Grammys at Radio City. Bob’s vision was to have these extras come in and just stand around the band. It made me think of watching an old Shindig show, or Hullaballoo or something, where the kids are dancing and grooving behind you. And I thought it was a great idea — it just felt like it took the razzle-dazzle out of it, and brought it down to just performing a song for this group of people.
Michael Portnoy (artist, “SOY BOMB”): The casting director put us through a rigorous series of auditions where we were tested on our ability to sway arrhythmically to the beat. We were instructed, and this is a direct quote, “to give Bob a good vibe.” If you watch us in the background, you can see how liberally this was interpreted.
Campbell: All these extras were there for the rehearsal for the afternoon, and there was certainly no incident. Everything went smooth. And Bob seemed pretty pleased with everything. The sound onstage was good, and we all felt confident about the tune. It seemed like it was going to be a great experience.
Fein: “SOY BOMB,” from what I gathered, behaved fine at rehearsal, and then decided to go crazy at the show. Nobody had any idea.
Campbell: As I recall, it was pretty quickly after the beginning of the song. I was to Bob’s right, and I’m playing the song, watching it, and here comes this guy — he pulls his shirt off, and starts gyrating in a way that’s completely unrelated to the music.
Fein: Everybody was going “Holy shit!” They couldn’t believe it.
Trisha Yearwood (winner): I just remember seeing it and thinking, “What is happening? I’ve met Bob Dylan, but I don’t think this is a part of his thing — I don’t think this is his guy…”
Campbell: My initial thought was, “Was this something that Bob had planned and I just missed it?” Bob’s singing, and trying to ignore the guy, and then he turned around to me and said, “Who the fuck is this guy?” And that’s when I realized “No, Bob didn’t plan this…”
Hanson: And then everyone’s just kinda smirking, and really uncomfortable, and going, “What’s he gonna do next…?” And he just basically stood around, and flailed, and had “SOY BOMB” written on his chest.
Campbell: What the hell does “SOY BOMB” mean? I was completely clueless. Some sort of… no, it just doesn’t make any kind of sense at all. Unless it was trying to rid of the world of meat, or something? I don’t know.
Colvin: Nobody knew what “SOY BOMB” meant. “I Am the Bomb?” Is that what it means?
Cole: I kind of appreciated the “SOY BOMB.” I thought it was rebellious, and fun, and nobody understood what the hell it meant. That was probably more authentic than all those trendy youngsters dancing.
Hanson: “SOY BOMB” was more surprising than ODB’s stage-crashing. Because it was way longer, for one. Significantly longer. [The producers] didn’t know what to do.
Colvin: It took them a long time to figure out what was going on. Dylan didn’t flinch.
Campbell: We all come from the bars, y’know — when a fight breaks out, you just keep playing. You just sorta ignore everything that goes on around you and keep playing. Like the band on the Titanic.
Portnoy: I was very surprised I got to dance for so long! But no one filming the event had any clue that it wasn’t part of the act.
Campbell: I remember Dylan trying to ignore the guy as best as he could, and just do the song. But then there was like, an instrumental turnaround or something, and he started looking for somebody, and two guys came out and grabbed this guy and picked him up on their shoulders and hauled him off, like a sack of potatoes.
Ehrlich: We had a great stage manager named Gary Natoli. Gary ran on stage and kind of bum-rushed the guy off. His moment was done.
Fein: I don’t think he was actually charged. I think he was just considered a nuisance. They got him out of there and told him not to come back.
Ehrlich: Ultimately he went outta town. I think we took all the information about him. I still don’t remember his name other than “SOY BOMB.”
Campbell: I think Bob was more bemused by it all than upset about it, after the fact. But on stage, he was clearly annoyed.
Portnoy: I did run into one of Dylan’s band members at a party a few years after and we had a good laugh about it.
Ehrlich: I always believed that all it takes is one thing like that, and that becomes the story of the show. As opposed to 10, 12, or 14 really good performances that take place on the stage. So… it’s not the kinda thing you look forward to. Although as it turns it out, it’s certainly something that has stayed in people’s memories for a long time and become — in its own way — one of our great moments.
Yearwood: In this day and age, we’re so worried about everything that happens that’s not planned, because we don’t know what that means… I think if that happened today, during a Grammy show, that kid would be taken down by a S.W.A.T. team and you’d never hear from him again! I kind of think it was a kinder, gentler time [back then] where you could just laugh it off.
Campbell: The further we get away from it, the more surreal it seems. ‘Coz there was never any resolution to it. It was this odd event, that never resolved itself, that never made sense. I haven’t seen video of it since. I understand it’s on YouTube, though. I should pull that up.
FIONA APPLE TO LEANN RIMES: “YOU GOT FUCKED”
One of the strangest subplots leading into the night was focused around the best female country vocal performance category, where both 15-year-old breakout star LeAnn Rimes and 33-year-old vet Trisha Yearwood were nominated for two versions of the same song: “How Do I Live,” love theme from the 1997 action blockbuster Con Air. While Rimes — whose version was the bigger pop hit — was selected to perform the song at the ceremony, it was Yearwood — whose version was a No. 1 country radio hit — who was announced as the category’s winner, immediately following Rimes’ performance, creating a media drama that followed both artists for years.
Yearwood: So LeAnn had recorded this song first, and my understanding was that she was not willing to change her rendition in any way, in something that Jerry [Bruckheimer, Con Air producer] wanted her to change. She just said “no thanks,” which I completely respect. And so I got the kind of 11th hour call, asking if I would do two versions — one for the beginning of the movie, which is more of a country version, and one for the end, which is more of a pop version. And I said yes.
I had no idea that LeAnn could or would release it as a single at the same time. She was selling about a million records a second, so I would never go up against her. So it was a real stressful time anyway.
LeAnn Rimes (performer/nominee): I was kind of in the middle of this crazy industry situation with Trisha recording “How Do I Live,” and myself recording “How Do I Live,” and then us both being nominated, and then I was performing it… it was a lot for a 14, 15-year-old at the time. It was just a lot to carry into that performance.
Yearwood: You get to the Grammys, and you’re sitting there, and LeAnn comes out and performs [“How Do I Live”]… you think, “Well, they must have asked her to perform it because they wanna make sure she’s here, because they know she’s gonna win.” So you’re really sitting there thinking, “This is gonna suck on a couple of levels. Someone else is performing the song you had a No. 1 record with, you’re nominated for the Grammy, and then you’re not gonna win.”
Rimes: At 15, I think I had, like, balls of steel — ‘coz I was able to tune all that out and just focus on what I had to do. I think that was the one really positive thing about being a kid. You kind of don’t take it all in, and there’s still a lot of things you don’t know, and there’s always a positive to that.
And then they gave the award away right after I sang. And of course, I didn’t win the award.
Ehrlich: That might not have been the best move we made. But I don’t know. We couldn’t have both of them, and I believe — again, it gets fuzzy, it was 20 years ago — I made the conscious decision to book LeAnn… I think we kinda thought [that LeAnn would win].
Yearwood: I’m sitting there, and when they announce my name, it’s kind of when you go into slow motion. And it was just so surreal, and I was on cloud nine from then on. It was just one of those things that I couldn’t believe it happened. I usually don’t remember who to thank, but I remember vividly thanking country radio, because it was so important that they embraced that version for it to go to No.1.
Rimes: Being 15, you get dragged into the drama of it — I mean, everybody was, clearly — and just not knowing how to handle it. But it was odd. Sometimes as an artist, you feel like, “Oh, was I just used for this?” Like, “Was I used to up the drama of the whole thing?”
Yearwood: I never talked about the Grammys with [LeAnn]. She and I have no issue. She lives in Nashville, I see her occasionally and everything’s great. I think it was a situation that, if I had been in her shoes that night, I would have been happy to perform and upset to have not won that Grammy — so I’m sure the roles would’ve been reversed, if she had won, for me.
Rimes: I think that [feeling betrayed] was definitely just the emotion of the moment. I mean, that was, God knows, so so long ago — I hope I’ve let go of it by now.
But honestly, between [Trisha and I], there’s never been any major issue. And I think a lot of people wanted it to be — so they made it, of course, much bigger than it was. I’m a big fan of hers. I think she’s absolutely fantastic. I grew up listening to her, she’s one of my influences. So I have nothing against her at all.
Ehrlich: In retrospect, if it proved nothing else, it proved that we don’t know the winners in advance, like some other shows do.
Rimes: My favorite part was walking back after the award was given out — I walked back into the dressing room, and of course a lot of us were sharing it together. And Fiona Apple looked at me and she goes, “You got fucked.” [Laughs.] And that’s one of my favorite Grammy moments ever. Like, I just died laughing.
“WE COULDN’T GO TO THE PODIUM. OL’ DIRTY BASTARD WAS THERE.”
Michael Portnoy wasn’t the only unexpected guest to seize the stage at the ‘98 Grammys. After Wyclef Jean and Erykah Badu announced Shawn Colvin and co-writer John Leventhal as winners of song of the year for Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard, wild-card star of hip-hop collective The Wu-Tang Clan, stormed the stage and grabbed the mic. It wasn’t Colvin’s win he was angry about, however — it was Wu-Tang’s own loss a couple categories earlier, when Puff Daddy’s No Way Out triumphed over their Wu-Tang Forever for best rap album. Quoth ODB: “Wu-Tang is for the children… Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best!”
Colvin: First of all, I like to say I was pre-Kanye/Taylor. I started it all.
Ehrlich: That, we had no clue [what to do about]. You know… the Grammys are just not the kind of show where those things happen.
Scheftel: That to me was more surprising, actually [than SOY BOMB]… This was before Kanye West. And again, I thought “Oh, someone should pull this guy off stage.” And then, you know, him saying afterward, “Oh, I bought this very expensive outfit because I thought we were going to win the award…”
RZA: Let me just give you a little backstory that led to the ODB thing. So we was also nominated for an American Music Award. And we went to the ceremony, the whole Clan, including ODB and myself. And we was sure to win. I know Bone Thugs was in competition with us, and we were feeling Wu-Tangish, and feeling like we were the best in the world, we went there, and we all wore Wu Wear, right?
As we were sitting there, I told ODB something that, at the time, as a pessimist, this is how I felt — I said, “They ain’t gonna give it to us, man. We like the real n—as from the streets. Look how we dress. Everybody here got a tuxedo on, look at us. We’re not gonna win, man, it’s not made for us, we’re hip-hop, we’re pure hip-hop.” And he was like “Nah, nah, we the best, we the best.” [Imitates announcer] “AND THE WINNER IS: BONE THUGS!” And he got up and fucking left! And he was heated, he was very angry.
So when it came to the Grammys, he decided to get the best suit he could find. He actually had a psychological idea in his head that if he dressed right, if he would be integrated into it, if he would cater to what it was, that he would be recognized, and he would win, it would be the big win. And I remember him getting ready for it and everything — and me, myself, I stayed outside the arena, I didn’t go in. I was very pessimistic about it. Raekwon went in with him, a few guys went in. And Wu-Tang lost, and ODB goes on stage and gives his iconic speech.
Colvin: We didn’t see him until we came up to get the award from Erykah Badu — she was holding the Grammy. I didn’t know what was going on, so I was actually on the stage expecting to go to the podium and… we couldn’t go to the podium. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was there. And poor Erykah Badu, she didn’t know what to do.
We weren’t at the podium, so the sound was behind us and I couldn’t tell what he was saying. So, the disparate reactions between John Leventhal and I are really funny to note, because my feeling was — since I couldn’t understand what he was saying — that he was mad at me for winning. And John felt like, “Oh this guy must really like our record.”
Scheftel: “Wu-Tang is for the children!” Yeah, that to me was also extraordinary.
RZA: He was very motivated by, of course, the music of Wu-Tang. Like he said, no disrespect to Diddy, he’s a peer of ours, a lot of respect of him. But like he said, “Wu-Tang is the best, Wu-Tang is for the children.” And he felt that what we was doing was more a reflection of what the world needed. Sometimes when you was young, and you was making music, and you came from the experience we came from, which was untrained, untamed — as well as being a dropout, just people that were down and out. Records that where so many millions of kids in our country [are going through] the same scenario. He felt like we should’ve won, because we were the people’s champ. We were for the kids.
Hanson: I thought he was an ass. I remember thinking to myself, “What an ass.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff: That’s ODB! [Laughs.] That’s typical ODB. I remember being at shows where he was a special guest, or just in the crowd, and got on the mic and wouldn’t give the mic back… It would be positive in the beginning, and then it would be awkward. Because it was kind of like, whoever it was — you don’t necessarily wanna take the mic back from ODB. So it was kinda like, “OK, so what do we do? And how long do we not do it?”
RZA: Look, I’ve been with him. He’s done it to The Roots, he’s done it to Doug E. Fresh, Akinyele, Onyx — you can keep going down the list. That was what he do. I mean, he did it to Method Man! But there’s a part of me, that’s proud. I mean, that’s ODB. He’s a unique man in this world… We all were passionate, but he was competitively passionate.
Colvin: It threw me off as far as having to give a speech accepting the award… I did say “I’m confused,” I remember that. And I was, I was completely thrown, and I don’t remember what I said after that. I might’ve had something planned but it went out of my head. So hopefully I covered some bases.
Hanson: You have that moment at first where you’re like, “What’s going on? Is this a part of the script?” You know? But, almost immediately, you realize that that guy is just being an ass. So, yeah, his mama needed to take him back and give him a swat on his rear end. He clearly didn’t… nobody taught him manners.
Colvin: But I wanna mention that I got flowers and a fax from ODB. I can’t remember what flowers they were. But the card in the flowers said… I think it said, “I’m sorry I took away from your moment.”
I mean, that win is synonymous with what happened. It looks great on the resume, you know. The incident. And I’m not diminishing it at all. It’s like I said — in retrospect, it’s a funny story. And it lives on, which I suppose I can be thankful for.
RZA: Oh, see? That’s ODB… I never seen him show remorse towards me or around the crew, but that’s ODB. He sends her flowers, a bouquet — that just shows the kinda quality [of his character]. He’s passionate, he’s truthful, but if he felt he disrespected her — because she had nothing to do with it — he still shows her love.
Scheftel: You know, there’s been a lot of reaction subsequent to that about how Ol’ Dirty Bastard livened the show up. Often when spontaneous things happen, it does add a tremendous value to a live show, and that’s why live is exciting, because you never know what is going to happen.
Cole: You just gotta roll with these things. “SOY BOMB” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. You just gotta roll with it. That’s rock n’ roll, that’s the beauty of it, that’s music — it’s chaotic and unpredictable. At least that’s what it should be. They start planning it, and they organize us as to age or gender, and they program our listening and compartmentalize us and monopolize radio, all of that. It should be chaotic, and mixed together, and confusing and wonderful and diverse. Those were great times in music.
RZA: It was, to me, one of the most memorable moments of ODB’s professional career, and a true example of his bravery. And to me, Kanye’s his own man of course, but I’m sure some of that inspiration got to him that day he walked on there.
Colvin: I cringed [while watching Kanye and Taylor the ‘09 VMAs]. It’s a terrible feeling, and that was even worse, because Kanye was literally upset because Beyoncé didn’t win. He was protesting her specific win, which was just beyond rude. Please.
RZA: That’s what makes our industry exciting to me. Of course there’s the clean-cut, formulated artists that we truly appreciate — it’s like a guitarist who plays music perfectly, classically trained or professionally trained — [but] there’s always some artists that we need in our industry that just are unique, radical. And they continue to push the needle forward.
“SHE SAVED OUR ASS.”
Of all the unpredictable moments that ended up defining the ‘98 Grammys, only one had a resolution that everyone could agree was a triumph. When Grammy Legend honoree Luciano Pavarotti informed the show producers that he was too ill to sing his “Nessun Dorma” aria as scheduled, they reached out to soul legend Aretha Franklin — who had performed the song at a MusiCares dinner nights before in Pavarotti’s honor — to step in for her friend at the last second. Franklin agreed, and the vocal powerhouse’s jaw-dropping understudy moment is still considered one of the greatest performances in award-show history.
Fein: Aretha was not booked to perform on her own that year. She was booked to work with Danny Aykroyd, John Goodman and Jim Belushi. And we were reviving the Blues Brothers — she was a very famous part of the first movie. So that was the creative on why Aretha was there.
Scheftel: I had been one of the producers of the MusiCares event two nights ago honoring Luciano Pavarotti, and at the rehearsal he performed. And nobody thought anything of it, and I didn’t either. And later we heard, “Mr. Pavarotti has a severe sore throat, and will not be able to perform his most famous aria.”
Fein: We were in trailers outside of Radio City at the time, before cell phones, before everything. And I had an assistant named Gary Simmons who just said, “You know, I’ll sit here for a while in case anybody calls.” And I’d say about half-hour into the show — that performance was supposed to be right crossing into the third hour — Gary picked up the phone. It was Pavarotti himself, saying “I don’t feel well, I can’t come, I sing for you next year.”
So Gary runs in and finds me, I try to find Ken Ehrlich, we’re now stuck with all this extra time on a live show, what are we gonna do? And we thought of Aretha.
Ehrlich: I remembered she had sung “Nessun Dorma” two nights before for MusiCares and Pavarotti. And I just ran up to her dressing room, and asked her if she would do it. And she said she wanted to hear the dress rehearsal. 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.”
Fein: We had to find the conductor from somewhere in the house. We pulled it together. He had never rehearsed it, he was a total trouper. And she nailed it. Standing ovation, and basically saved our ass.
Scheftel: It was amazing, amazing what she did. Personally, I thought, “Y’know, there’s still time — if you’re gonna ask Aretha Franklin, let her do ‘Natural Woman.’ Everybody would love that, she can do it in her sleep!” But [her “Nessun Dorma”] was amazing, and she’s an extraordinary performer, and she rose to the occasion on gameday like no one else.
Colvin: That was stunning, right? I mean, who knew that Aretha could come out and on the fly, sing opera? Crazy, just stunning.
Hanson: Epic. Amazing. Phenomenal. Ridiculous.
Yearwood: Just, oh my gosh, right? We already knew she was the Queen of Soul, and she just proved that she could do anything.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: That was amazing. That was amazing. The Grammys are one of the times where you get to see some of the legendary artists from different genres perform that you not necessarily would [otherwise].
Hanson: To watch a legend of R&B, who has one of the greatest voices in pop music history, stand there and go… “Oh yeah, I’ve also been classically trained over the years. I’ve also studied opera and classical music. And I can sing arias!” [Laughs.] You’re just like… “Are you kidding?” And that’s the moment where you’re just like, “Life goals.”
Scheftel: I did talk to Aretha Franklin [after the performance]. She said, “Jeff… Jeff… how did it go? How was it?” Aretha Franklin is asking me how her performance was! And to me, I was stunned. I am not an operatic genius at all, but to me — “It was extraordinary what you did. And you saw the response!” And she said, “No, I was so tuned in to what I was doing, that’s all I could think about!”
Fein: Aretha was absolutely a pro. It was sheer serendipity that she had done this two nights before, but she came out with no rehearsal, an orchestra — I guess they changed it to her key — with everything else. And some people didn’t know that wasn’t what we’d always planned! It was just a miracle, an absolute miracle.
Ehrlich: It’s in the top ten [all-time Grammy performances], easily… It was an amazing night. And Aretha, I did an interview with her on this show, and she says it was one of the great nights of her life.
Scheftel: 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.
Ehrlich: In all honesty, not that I’ll ever forget “SOY BOMB,” but that’s what I remember about that show.
Scheftel: For a first Grammys, that was definitely a baptism by fire… two people I had idolized are both Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin — I’m from Minnesota — and to have those two things happen… when you look back, it’s one of the most magical events I’ve ever been to. Despite the problems, I think that anyone who was involved has to say it ranks up there with the shows that they will never forget.
An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Billboard.