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Remembering when Aretha Franklin saved the 1998 Grammys with ‘Nessun Dorma’

We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to revisit quite possibly the greatest Grammy performance of all time as Aretha Franklin takes on the classic song ‘Nessun Dorma’ and brings the audience to its feet. The 1998 Grammys, it’s safe to say, was arguably the most action-packed ceremony in the show’s long and illustrious history.

Shawn Colvin, Wu-Tang, LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood were all involved but one artist stole the show. That artist was, of course, Aretha Franklin. Introduced by Sting, Franklin would pick up the torch left behind by Pavarotti at “literally, a moment’s notice.” 

When ‘Grammy Living Legend’ honoree Luciano Pavarotti contacted the show producers to release the damning news that he was too ill to sing his classic song ‘Nessun Dorma’, the awards ceremony looked to be in a seemingly unavoidable chaotic meltdown. Pavarotti was billed as the headline act, the showstopper—things had gone very wrong.

However, producer Ken Ehrlich remembered seeing Franklin perform the song at a MusiCares dinner nights before in tribute Pavarotti and, in a bold move, asked the Queen of Soul to step in for her dear friend at the very last minute.

Of course, Franklin agreed. The performance, as we’ve come to expect from Franklin, has been ranked among the greatest in award-show history.

Longtime producer  Ehrlich recalled how he was able to ask Franklin to step in for the performance of a lifetime: “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’.”

Tisha Fein, co-producer at the time said: “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.

“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,” she added.

It’s a performance we’ve come to expect from Aretha Franklin, you don’t earn the moniker of Lady Soul without being able to fight for your crown at the drop of a hat. Here she absolutely belts out her song and leaves the audience agog with what they’ve just witnessed. It clearly didn’t matter what Franklin was singing, she was able to make it utterly unique.

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