In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Thursday (Aug. 16), fans and admirers on social media shared footage of one of her most famous performances: A rendition of the opera classic “Nessun dorma” at the 1998 Grammys that came together with little warning after scheduled performer Luciano Pavarotti fell ill just before showtime. Below, longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich tells Billboard about how it came together — and why it endures as a fan favorite. (As told to Nolan Feeney.)
I loved working with Aretha Franklin. She was not always easy — the word “diva” is not applied lightly — but you always knew where you stood.
Luciano Pavarotti had been booked for the 1998 show and was going to do “Nessun dorma.” He came to rehearsal the day before, but he didn’t sing. He did not come to the dress rehearsal the day of the show, either, but that wasn’t unusual — we try to get everybody to the dress rehearsal, but it doesn’t always happen. The show was on the air at 8 o’clock, and then at about 8:10, my assistant came to me under the stage with this little torn-off piece of paper with a phone number and said, “You’ve got to call this number, it’s Pavarotti’s home.”
It surprised me because we were already on the air. He wasn’t supposed to perform until about two hours into the show, but he should’ve been there. So I called him, and he said, “I cannot sing for you tonight, my voice is bad. I will sing for you next year.”
I thought, “That’s all well and good, but what am I going to do this year?” I’ve got a four-and-a-half minute hole to fill. I’ve got a 50-piece orchestra and a 30-piece male chorus, and the likelihood is I’m never going to get it on the air. It was killing me. Sting was going to introduce the performance, so at one point I thought maybe I’d do something with Sting. Stevie Wonder was on the show, and it’s never hard to go to Stevie and say, “Look, I have a problem, could you put something together?” I’ve done that with other artists: When we had the Chris Brown and Rihanna situation in 2009, I went to Justin Timberlake, who put together that amazing duet with Al Green.
I had not gone to the MusiCares Person of the Year show that honored Pavarotti two nights before, but I remembered that Aretha had sung “Nessun dorma” for Pavarotti there. She was at the Grammys that night — there was a new Blues Brothers movie, and I had her performing with John Goodman and Dan Aykroyd.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever left my post underneath the stage, but we had to do something. So I literally ran up two flights of stairs in Radio City Music Hall to her dressing room. The adrenaline was flowing. It was a small room — it wasn’t miniscule, but she wasn’t the star of the show, so it wasn’t a star’s dressing room. She was just sitting there eating chicken.
I don’t have a lot of fear when it comes to these kinds of things, but I was desperate, and desperation breeds boldness. I’d worked with her before — she was on the second Grammys show I did in 1981, and we did a Fox special called Aretha: Duets in 1993 — so I looked her right in the eye and said, “I have a problem. Pavarotti is not going to sing tonight. How would you like to sing twice?” Without any hesitation, she said to me, “OK, Ken, I can do that.”
I had no idea whether her version of “Nessun dorma” was like Pavarotti’s. I had a cassette of Pavarotti singing it from his rehearsal rushed up to where we were and closed the door. It was three keys away from how she had done it. Today, there are apps where you can automatically transpose musical scores from one key to another instantaneously, but that technology did not exist in 1998. Pavarotti’s conductor was there, and he came in and sat with her, and they went over it again and again. She came out and did her other performance, and then she went back to her dressing room and worked on this some more.
In the meantime, I went to Sting, because he was going to introduce the Pavarotti performance. I told him what was going on: “We need to rewrite the script for you.” Nobody on the floor knew about this, not the crew, not the director. I thought it could set everybody in a panic.
I felt that it was important to try to keep Aretha calm — as if I needed to — so when the time came, I went up to her dressing room to bring her down. At this point in her career, she had started to become obsessed with air conditioning and heat, often not coming out of her dressing room until she was happy. That’s one of the reasons why you almost never see her without a fur coat — she was afraid that it was going to be too cold for her. She said to me, “Ah, the air conditioning is on, it’s cold in here — Ken, do something about it.” Now, this is a minute and a half before her performance, and I said, “I don’t think there’s much I can do.” At that moment, she gave me one of those Aretha looks: You gotta do something about it.
She had never seen the staging for this performance, which was probably as big a group of musicians as I had ever put on a Grammys stage for one number. So when we walked to the side of the stage and she saw the orchestra and these 30 guys, she gripped my hand and said, “This is gonna be fun.”
And then she went out and killed it. Everybody was shocked, surprised and thrilled. Everybody knew that she was the Queen of Soul, everybody knew no one could sing a song like “Respect” the way she sang it. But unless you were one of the 2,000 people that had been at MusiCares two nights before, you had no idea that she could do this. It was a genuine shock. I remember looking out on the audience as she walked out. There was the rush of applause, and then there was this thunderous applause that followed the performance. Everybody knew that she was incomparable.
I don’t think the rest of the night 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. When the news broke, it was all anyone was talking about in a pre-blogging world.
We had this trauma together, and so we were bonded for life by that incident. We would work together several times after that, and she would often refer to it. The next morning I called her, and she was over the moon. She said, “I never expected the response that I got. I will never forget last night.”