I’m seeing a lot of fictional stories about Aretha Franklin on the interwebs this morning.
Here’s the real story of how the Queen of Soul became the Queen of Opera on the 1998 Grammy Awards, held in New York at Radio City Music Hall.
Pierre Cossette was the producer of the Grammys from the beginning until his own end. Pierre invented the concept of interesting mash ups, presenting two or three artists together on stage whom you wouldn’t normally associate with each other.
That year, Pierre– was who brilliant in this regard and many others–came up with the idea to match Aretha with opera legend Luciano Pavarotti. They would sing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” together. Aretha would sing the English part, Pavarotti, the Italian. It was a done deal.
I was very lucky to have been invited into the production truck parked on the side of Radio City. I was in there most of the night with Pierre, to write about what he went through on a Grammy night.
There are several misconceptions about what happened during that show. First of all, Pavarotti was not ill in any way. He was there, at Radio City, upstairs in his dressing room. He simply wouldn’t go on, as planned. No manner of cajoling or persuasion could make him come downstairs and sing. He just wasn’t into it. He was never “ailing.” He was just being petulant.
That was the call Pierre received. I was standing two feet from him when he got the call. “I have to go upstairs and convince Pavarotti to sing,” Pierre said, and he took off out the door.
Twenty minutes later, Pierre was back, and relieved. “Pavarotti won’t do it,” he said. “But Aretha can do the whole thing. She studied the Italian as well as the English!”
Indeed, as I discussed with Aretha many times over the years, she had rehearsed “Nessun Dorma” as Puccini had written it. Of course she had. Aretha, a student of classical music, who appreciated and understood it, would never have done less.
Pierre went to Sting, who was on the show, to ask a favor. The former Police front man went out on stage and basically made up a story. He said that Pavarotti was ill, was at home (somewhere), and couldn’t make tonight’s performance. Then he introduced Aretha.
Aretha’s solo performance of “Nessun Dorma” was thrilling, and so unexpected, the audience went wild. It literally changed her career. Ever since then “Nessun Dorma” was worked into her shows. She even sang it for the Pope when we went to Philadelphia in September 2016. His eyes were wide with delight as the orchestra swelled behind her.