When Aretha Franklin had to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ after Pavarotti fell sick at the Grammys, and it was astonishing

19 January 2021, 15:06 | Updated: 19 January 2021, 15:11

With just one listen to Pavarotti's rehearsal tape and with no time to practice, Sting introduced a brave Aretha to the stage to sing 'Nessun Dorma'
With just one listen to Pavarotti's rehearsal tape and with no time to practice, Sting introduced a brave Aretha to the stage to sing 'Nessun Dorma'. Picture: CBS

By Giorgina Ramazzotti

Luciano Pavarotti suddenly fell ill at the 1998 Grammy Awards in New York and his good friend Aretha Franklin agreed to step in to sing 'Nessun Dorma' at – literally – a moment's notice.

Panic had broken out backstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York on February 25, 1998.

The 40th Grammy Awards were well underway and the headline act of the show, opera king Luciano Pavarotti, had just been deemed too sick to perform by his team of doctors.

See more: Watch the moment Paul McCartney sings ‘Yesterday’ so tenderly even hysterical Beatles fans fall silent

With one billion people across the world waiting to see Pavarotti perform, mayhem ensued as producers scrambled to fill his time slot – when the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, stepped up to the plate.

Sting introduced Aretha Franklin on stage to sing instead of Pavarotti at “literally, a moment’s notice.”
Sting introduced Aretha Franklin on stage to sing instead of Pavarotti at “literally, a moment’s notice.”. Picture: CBS
The Queen of Soul gave her own take on the Italian classic
The Queen of Soul gave her own take on the famous Italian aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot. Picture: CBS
a quick-thinking show producer approached soul diva Aretha Franklin to see if she would be willing to step in to sing with the orchestra.
a quick-thinking show producer approached soul diva Aretha Franklin to see if she would be willing to step in to sing with the orchestra. Picture: CBS

It was then that a quick-thinking show producer approached soul diva Aretha Franklin to see if she would be willing to step in.

See more: Aretha Franklin’s solo version of ‘Never Gonna Break My Faith’ is finally released

With just one listen to Pavarotti's rehearsal tape and with no time to practice, Sting then introduced a brave Aretha to the stage to sing 'Nessun Dorma' with a full-sized orchestra at “literally, a moment’s notice.” 

The Queen of Soul gave her own take on the Italian classic and moved the audience to such an extent that the incredible moment became one of the most memorable of her 50-year career.

The musician-filled crowd were on their feet after the incredible performance, with the camera panning to the astonished faces of Celine Dion and LeAnn Rimes in the audience.

See more: Watch the emotional Emmys 2018 In Memoriam tribute set to Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace'

The moment has since become one of the most famous in the history of the Grammy Awards, with the producers later giving insight into what was going on behind the scenes on the night.

“I just ran up to her dressing room and asked her if she would do it," said Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich.
“I just ran up to her dressing room and asked her if she would do it," said Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich. Picture: CBS
“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,” said show producer, Tisha 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,” said show producer, Tisha Fein. Picture: CBS
“It was amazing, amazing what she did,” said the then academy’s media productions director, Jeff Scheftel.
“It was amazing, amazing what she did,” said the then academy’s media productions director, Jeff Scheftel. Picture: CBS

30 minutes before the live show began a call came through from Pavarotti saying, “I don’t feel well. I can’t come. I sing for you next year,” co-producer Tisha Fein told Billboard.

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“I remembered she had sung ‘Nessun Dorma’ two nights before for MusiCares [the Recording Academy philanthropic wing] and Pavarotti,” show producer Ken Ehrlich told Billboard shortly after the show.

“I just ran up to her dressing room and asked her if she would do it. 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.’ ”

See more: When Pavarotti and George Michael sang a spine-tingling duet of 'Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me'

Tisha Fein recalled: “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.

See Aretha Franklin's full Grammy performance below:

The headline act of the 40th Grammy Awards, opera king Luciano Pavarotti, had been deemed too sick to perform by his team of doctors.
The headline act of the 40th Grammy Awards, opera king Luciano Pavarotti, had been deemed too sick to perform by his team of doctors. Picture: Getty
30 minutes before the live show began a call came through from Pavarotti (pictured) saying, “I don’t feel well. I can’t come. I sing for you next year,” co-producer Tisha Fein told Billboard.
30 minutes before the live show began a call came through from Pavarotti (pictured) saying, “I don’t feel well. I can’t come. I sing for you next year,” co-producer Tisha Fein told Billboard. Picture: Getty

“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.

See more: 5 of Aretha Franklin's greatest live performances, from 'Nessun Dorma' to 'Natural Woman'

“It was amazing, amazing what she did,” said the then academy’s media productions director, Jeff Scheftel.

“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!’

Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich credits Aretha with not only saving the show in 1998, but by doing so, creating one of the most memorable moments in the Awards' history.

See more: Brian May singing duet with Pavarotti on 'Too Much Love Will Kill You' is spectacular

"[Her ‘Nessun Dorma’] was amazing, and she’s an extraordinary performer, and she rose to the occasion on gameday like no one else.”

The Queen of Soul would go on to record and sing 'Nessun Dorma' live at significant moments throughout rest of her life.

See more: Watch Ariana Grande's powerful Aretha Franklin tribute with 'Natural Woman' cover

The last time she sang it was at the World Meeting of Families for Pope Francis on his visit to Philadelphia in September 2015.

A young boy in the audience was so moved by her performance that he came on stage midway through and embraced Aretha as she continued singing.

See video of Aretha singing for Pope Francis below: