Aretha Franklin: How She Saved the 1998 Grammy Awards

As the first woman ever inducted into the Hall of Fame and the winner of 18 Grammy Awards, Aretha Franklin has been hailed as many things — including the savior of the 1998 Grammy Awards show.

Franklin, who was 55 at the time and scheduled to be at the awards ceremony for a Blues Brothers bit with Dan Aykroyd, stepped in at the very last minute for Grammy Living Legend honoree Luciano Pavarotti, who was scheduled as the ceremony's showstopper performer with his "Nessun Dorma."

When Pavarotti called from his home to tell producers 10 minutes into the live televised broadcast he was too ill to perform, the ceremony seemed to be in meltdown mode without its headlining act. But producer Ken Ehrlich remembered that Franklin performed the song at a MusiCares dinner nights before in tribute to Pavarotti. In a bold and perhaps last-ditch effort to save the show, he asked the Queen of Soul to step in.

She agreed, of course, and the performance has been ranked among the greatest in awards-show history ever since.

"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," Ehrlich recalled of the chaotic moments true to show business. "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.'"

"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," Erhlich told Billboard.

"And then she went out and killed it. Everybody was shocked, surprised and thrilled," he continued. "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."

"Aretha was not booked to perform on her own that year," co-producer Tisha Fein explained. "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.

Franklin died Thursday after a battle with advanced pancreatic cancer, her publicist said. Her family said in a statement that they have felt the outpouring of love that has come for them and for Franklin in the week leading up to and the wake of her death.