Inside Aretha Franklin’s Legendary Last-Minute Grammys Performance

Most people know Aretha Franklin as the Queen of Soul, but that by no means indicates that she couldn’t handle other genres of music. Franklin’s talents knew no bounds, and many of her performances remain iconic years after her death. Often when people look for an indication of just how incredible a singer Franklin was, they turn to her performance of the opera classic “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards.

Aretha Franklin onstage performing at 'VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin' held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Tuesday, April 10, 2001
Aretha Franklin onstage performing at ‘VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin’ held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Tuesday, April 10, 2001 | Scott Gries/ImageDirect

The 1998 Grammys included an opera performance

At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform “Nessun Dorma,” one of the world’s most famous arias from the opera Turandot.

But 30 minutes into the show, Pavarotti called to let show producers know that he would not be performing because he had a sore throat “I don’t feel well. I can’t come. I sing for you next year,” he reportedly said according to Billboard.

Aretha Franklin stepped in to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the last second

The Recording Academy needed someone to fill Pavarotti’s spot, and show producer Ken Ehrlich sprung into action by asking Franklin. She had seen her sing “Nessun Dorma” two nights before for a tribute event to Pavarotti.

” 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,” Ehrlich recounted. “I brought it to her and played it for her. When she heard it, she said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”

The team found the orchestra conductor, who had not rehearsed the song at all. Still, they pulled it all together just 20 minutes before it was time to go on stage.

Aretha Franklin performing on the 'VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin' at Radio City Music Hal in 2001
Aretha Franklin performing on the ‘VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin’ at Radio City Music Hall in 2001 | Scott Gries/ImageDirect/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin’s performance received a standing ovation

Franklin brought the house down with her performance and received a standing ovation. But she was so focused on doing the job that was asked of her that she didn’t realize the legendary performance that she had just given.

Jeff Scheftel, the Recording Academy’s media productions director found Franklin backstage after she finished. “She said, ‘Jeff… Jeff… how did it go? How was it?’ Aretha Franklin is asking me how her performance was! And to me, I was stunned,” Scheftel recalled. Faith Hill was wiping tears from her eyes and Celine Dion was applauding and shaking her head in disbelief at what she just saw.

“It was extraordinary what you did. And you saw the response!” he told her.

Franklin replied, “No, I was so tuned in to what I was doing, that’s all I could think about!”

RELATED: Why Aretha Franklin’s Niece Resigned From Her Estate

There’s a star-studded Aretha Franklin biopic in the works

In August of 2021, audiences everywhere will get to see Franklin’s life story told on-screen by Jennifer Hudson. Respect is a star-studded biopic that gives a look into Franklin’s life before she became the music icon that she remains today. What’s more: Franklin hand-picked Hudson to play her before her death in 2018.

Hudson isn’t the only Grammy-winning singer to be taking on the iconic role of Aretha Franklin. British stage and screen actor Cynthia Erivo was tapped by National Geographic to play Franklin in their Genius series. Production on the season was nearly complete when they had to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides Hudson, Respect is set to feature other big-name stars. Mary J. Blige was cast as jazz singer and Franklin’s mentor Dinah Washington, Audra McDonald and Forest Whitaker will play Franklin’s parents Barbara and C.L., Marlon Wayans will play Franklin’s first husband Ted White, and Tituss Burgess takes on the role of gospel singer James Cleveland.

Very little has been revealed about the script, so it remains to be seen if the 1998 Grammys will be a part of the movie.