The time Aretha Franklin stepped in for ‘good friend’ Pavarotti, and sang Nessun Dorma

25 October 2022, 11:27 | Updated: 25 October 2022, 19:08

Aretha Franklin with her good friend, Luciano Pavarotti
Aretha Franklin with her good friend, Luciano Pavarotti. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti suddenly fell ill, so his good friend Aretha Franklin was asked to step in...

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Puccini’s ‘Nessun dorma’ is one of the most impressive of tenor arias in the operatic repertoire – with an astronomically high top B at the climax of the work.

Luciano Pavarotti popularised the aria far beyond the world of classical music when he performed the work at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, captivating a global audience and introducing a host of football fans to opera.

The Italian opera singer was subsequently booked for a myriad of high-profile events across the world following his rise to mainstream stardom, one of which was a performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards in at Radio City Music Hall, New York City.

Taking place on 25 February, Pavarotti had been due to sing his synonymous aria as the show’s headline act, but prior to the ceremony he contacted the awards to say he would be unable to sing that evening.

As the showrunners descended into panic over who to replace this legendary show-stopping performer, producer Ken Ehrlich approached the Queen of Soul, and Pavarotti’s good friend – Aretha Franklin to step in. The equally legendary musician said yes, and the audience were graced with the most stunning, standing-ovation inducing performance. Watch below...

Read more: World-famous tenor Pavarotti posthumously honoured with star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

Ehrlich had seen Franklin perform the famed Puccini aria at a MusiCares dinner two nights before the award show in tribute to Pavarotti, so felt confident asking the Queen of Soul to step in at a moment’s notice.

The result was an incredibly moving performance that would go down in award ceremony history.

English musician and frontman of The Police, Sting, introduced Franklin on stage, and afterwards had the soul singer join him to announce Pavarotti as the recipient of the ‘Grammy Legend Award’ – an award that Franklin had previously been honoured with seven years prior.

“Luciano, I know you’re at home cheering on Aretha,” Sting said on stage at the awards, “cheering quietly but cheering nonetheless.

“On behalf of the Recording Academy it gives me great pleasure to present you with this year’s Grammy Living Legend Award in absentia. I know you’ve promised to be here next year to accept the award. Living is the perfect word for you Luciano, for not only do you possess one of the greatest voices ever, but your spirit and zest for life is singular.

“You give your all and each and every time you walk on stage. And speaking personally, there’s no greater thrill on Earth for me than to be in the audience witnessing of Pavarotti’s performance. And I know I’ll be doing so again very soon.

“There’s no one more deserving of this honour than you and the entire world is a better place because we are fortunate enough to share it with you.”