Gloria. Shania. Celine. Mariah. Aretha.
No, we’re not announcing our nominations for America’s Mount Rushmore of Music—although, all we can think about now is who we have to petition to make this happen. As music fans of a certain generation will certainly recall, these five legends, no last names needed, were the trailblazers that VH1 called upon when launching their most cherished live music franchise, VH1 Divas.
Twenty years ago this month at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, Shania Twain, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin came together like some sort of musical Avengers to deliver a live concert the likes of which had never really been seen on TV. And it was one that producer Ken Ehrlich says was born out of failure.
“We had been doing a series of shows for them called VH1 Honors. And those shows were really great shows…A lot of the combinations that have come to be called Grammy Moments, I did a lot of those on those shows. But they never quite found an audience,” the famed producer told E! News over the phone. “They were amazing shows, they were great live events…VH1 basically said ‘We’re probably not gonna do any more of those, how do we change it?’ There was a meeting and I don’t remember exactly who came up with it, but I know it was a time when female performers were really beginning to emerge as a dominant force in music. I had already worked with…all of the artists on that show. It was just kind of organic, ‘Hey, why don’t we just grab and put a number of them together and build a show around female artists?’ And that’s how it started.”
Of course, convincing five of music’s biggest names to set egos aside and share the stage with one another is no easy feat, however Erlich admitted that the linchpin to the entire evening was the Queen of Soul herself, Ms. Franklin. “Obviously, the magnet for the first one…was Aretha,” he said of the Queen of Soul, who tragically passed away on August 16, 2018 after a battle with advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type. “They all had a respect. Aretha was a generation earlier. Every one of those women had a love and a respect and wanting to be on the same stage as Aretha, so I think if there was anything that put it over it was that we were doing it with Aretha.”
“Well, it was an honor to be a part of it,” Twain recalled. “The running list was outstanding and I admired everybody on the show, so it was a no-brainer really to want to be part of it and to feel privileged to be part of it.”
Of course, when it came time to program and produce the show, an evening that saw each of the five women take the stage alone at certain points before teaming up for a few duets and, finally, a massive group performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” there was some political maneuvering to be done. “It’s not rocket science. It is a negotiation and it is kind of dealing with egos, but again, by the time we did that show, I had worked with most, if not all of them, several times,” Ehrlich said. “So you begin to build a trust in them and it’s easier.”
That trust wasn’t enough to keep rehearsals from running smoothly, however. In fact, the woman responsible for bringing the whole night together was also the reason the centerpiece of the special almost didn’t happen. Ehrlich convinced Franklin to do the special after she stepped in last minute at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards two months prior to replace Luciano Pavarotti with a performance of “Nessun dorma.”
“The one thing she said to me was, ‘I’ll do the show, and I love you Ken.’ But when we did the show at Radio City, there was a little thing about air conditioning with her. The air had to be off. And she kept saying to me, ‘I’ll come to The Beacon, I’ll do it. But I need that air conditioning off,'” he revealed. “So we literally, I had a guy standing by in the basement of the Beacon who was there to make sure that the air conditioning didn’t get turned on when Aretha Franklin came to rehearse.”
“Anyway, she came to the stage. The person who was guarding the air conditioning unit either took a break or was doing something. Someone turned the air on. And she didn’t feel it, but she heard it go on from the stage in the Beacon Theatre. And the next thing I know, she’s walking out and she’s saying, ‘I’ll be at my hotel. I’ll see you on Sunday,'” Ehrlich continued. “And I had her ready to do duets with several of the other artists, OK? So now here’s a Divas show, or a continuation of the kind of shows that I do, where the premise of the show is collaboration. You want to see these people together. And Aretha’s now telling me she’s not going to sing with anyone, she’s just going to be on her own…We didn’t call the show Divas for nothing.”
Franklin ultimately relented, performing not only in the final group number, but also singing with Carey on “Chain of Fools.” But it didn’t happen before some serious attempts at a Plan B were devised. With Carole King, who co-wrote “…Natural Woman,” on hand, Ehrlich hatched a plan. “I wanted to do ‘…Natural Woman’ whether Aretha was going to do it or not. Then I had hopes that Aretha would ultimately decide to come back and be a part of it. But in the meantime…I said to Celine, who I knew well, and I went to [Dion’s late husband] Rene [Angelil] and I said, ‘I want to do ‘…Natural Woman’ with Celine, Carole—I want to do it with all the women if I can. Is Celine up for doing it?’ And Celine, she’s always been fearless. She said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I said, ‘Let’s rehearse it with Celine, Carole, I didn’t have Shania then…Mariah was not there. But I rehearsed it with Celine’s back-up singers, Celine, Gloria and Carole King and blocked it. And we did it, we put it on stage right then and there.”
With a network that didn’t even want the song to be performed in the first place—”Someone at VH1 said, ‘No, we don’t want to do that. That’s old,'” Ehrlich recalled—and half of its performers not attached to perform, let alone rehearse, until the day of show, Ehrlich was cutting it close. But he stuck to his guns—and it paid off. “If you watched it, you saw, it was amazing. It’s like the centerpiece of the show. So, we rehearsed it, it was amazing, we did it on the show and it was a thrill for everybody there.”
While Ehrlich was struggling to keep his Divas in line, Twain was focusing on some diva behavior of her own, only hers was of the hirsute variety. “I wanted to indulge in the diva moment, so I went for the big hair. And I had a lot of fun with that. I wanted the hair bigger, as big as it could get,” she recalled. “It was a change to play with the diva moment that I was in. I don’t consider myself a diva as far was whatever people consider the classic diva, but I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to indulge in this and have fun and have really big hair tonight.'”
In fact, that was the only diva behavior she could recall. “There’s no drama to report. People expected there to be drama because it was a diva thing, but it pulled us all together and we all did our thing,” Twain reminisced. “We all represented our own place in music history that night.”
For Ehrlich, who would go on to produce several more VH1 Divas specials for the network as the franchise grew in popularity, that first night may not even stand out as the best. “As good as that one was, the next couple were just as good,” he remarked, alluding to the following year’s lineup that included Whitney Houston, Cher and Tina Turner and the 2000 tribute to Diana Ross that saw Carey return and an emerging girl group take the stage for a performance Ehrlich won’t soon forget.
“And you forgot a very important act in that show, because I’ll never forget it, was Destiny’s Child,” he said when we failed to note Beyoncé‘s former group during our conversation. “It might’ve been the first time, I think I might’ve worked with them before that. But that was their emergence and they just idolized Diana. That turned out to be a good show, too.”
When asked who he’d turn to for a 2018 version of VH1 Divas, Ehrlich is quick with a list. “Now you’re gonna get me in trouble. I like singers. To me, the most important element of any of these shows is really the ability to sing,” he said. “We’ve done a number of things with Andra Day. I love Andra Day. I love Demi [Lovato.] I love Alessia Cara‘s amazing. We just had some really good experiences with Kesha…Maybe you can build it around someone. Maybe there’s an iconic artist that you want to honor that again acts as a magnet that brings everyone together. But I don’t know that that’s necessary.”
It’s been six years since a non-holiday themed Divas graced VH1’s airwaves—2012’s program was a celebration of dance music that also paid tribute to Houston and Donna Summer, who’d died earlier that year—but the legacy of that inaugural evening in the franchise lives on today.
“It occurs to me that that was the beginning of a great movement for women in music. I’ve always enjoyed working with female artists and have pretty much all my life. But if you think of what grew out of that,” Ehrlich notes. “By the way, there were naysayers too. There were people that said, ‘Why do you have to put all women together?’ Well, I think what this turned out to be was pop music was a male dominated art form up until that point…Women didn’t dominate the scene until around the time we started doing these shows. And from that moment on, I think it was a sea change in terms of the perception of this being a male-oriented business. That to me…was anthemic. It really was. That basically broke the mold.”
(This story was originally published on Saturday, April 21, 2018 at 4:00 am PST.)