I was recently at a friend’s house for game night, and upon finally finding the lost remote and taking over music (as I regularly do), I found an excuse to descend down a YouTube rabbit hole purely focused on performances from VH1’s Divas concerts. They’re my favorite series of concerts and are responsible for the most formative moments in my music taste.
At the beginning of 1998, a few months shy of my 8th birthday, I discovered Aretha Franklin. My entire world shifted the moment that I consciously heard her voice. As my interest grew, my parents took a blank VHS, labeled the spine with “Aretha Franklin” and began taping Aretha anytime she was on TV. The second entry on the tape took place on April 14, 1998. VH1 staged a benefit concert for their non-profit organization, Save The Music. The organization was formed in 1997 to combat the widespread removal of music programs happening across schools in America.
The benefit they produced was called VH1 Divas Live. It assembled an array of women from different corners of music, uniting all for a common cause: music. What transpired on that stage, and in the six years of shows that followed represents the most formative moments in my love and interest in music. I even half-jokingly refer to it as my “musical fertile crescent.”
For a decent chunk of time, I had just a fraction of that first VH1 Divas Live show. My parents taped Aretha’s parts only. Months later though, when the show was officially released, my dad got me the CD and I got my ears on the rest of the show. In between, I also caught reruns of the program, and eventually the whole show in the ramp up to VH1 Divas Live ‘99 the following April.
What happened on that stage still feels a little bit like magic, in part because programs like that just don’t take place in this day and age. Even when VH1 resurrected the Divas brand in the late 2000’s and 2010’s, none of their revivals ever matched the immensity of the initial run.
The magic was also in what happened at the show’s conclusion. Yes, there’s much to say about that finale, but for this moment, focus on the presence. All five of the show’s headliners stood shoulder-to-shoulder and sang together for the first (and only) time. Only one other time, at the 2000 show, did every performer from the show unite together on the stage. At every other show, it was fractions and fragments of those who took the stage that night. And at no show aside from 1998’s original did every woman get a moment to shine during the finale.
I had never heard the word ‘diva’ prior to the show, but I became obsessed with it thereafter. I have a few compilation cds from other corners of the world that bear the name. Aretha Franklin’s final studio album, released in 2014, even includes the word in its name.After the show I remember my mom printing out an article that created an acronym for “diva.” It’s been a quarter of a century so the “i” is lost to time, but I do remember “divine” and “virtuoso,” and the reason my mom printed it out for me was what they had for a: Aretha. From then on, when the word “diva” was mentioned, I perked up and paid attention.
What made the first Divas so special is that it sequenced all these formidable performers from different edges of pop and other genres, and then converged them all together for one culminating moment of female unity.
Revisiting the show a quarter of a century later, all of these women were in the midst of a high in their respective careers. Franklin was in a renaissance. Dion and her Titanic theme were ubiquitous. Carey was in a state of liberation. Twain was transcending the barriers between country and pop. And Estefan, perhaps experiencing the least remarkable moment of the group, was still in her own high, dancing her way into her next chapter.
I have a love for Mariah Carey that some believe is first and foremost in my musical palette (it’s the merch. I can go a solid 40 days in nothing but Mariah attire and never repeat a top). But like Mariah, Aretha is “my North star and high bar.” I am only a Mariah fan because I saw her sing with Aretha on Divas Live. And because of what I heard when I got the CD. With that said, when I think of Mariah, I first see her with the big hair and black dress she donned during the show’s closing number.
Mariah opened ‘Divas’ in true diva fashion: with a ballad. “My All” was her current single, slated to be physically released on April 21, the week after ‘Divas’ took place. The Puerto Rico-inspired production was rearranged to include an orchestra, adding a lushness to the dramatic record of longing.
At the end of the record though, instead of simply fading out, a pounding dance beat emerged. Mariah delivered what should have been the final “tonight” as the beat took hold, and tilted her head down and a smirk grew on her face. She couldn’t contain her own excitement as she launched a dance mix of the record, produced by David Morales. The audience loved it. As the dance beat took hold, audience members could be heard screaming in excitement for what was about to unfold. And Mariah delivered some powerhouse vocals over that dance beat, as any good diva should be able to do. Hey, divas gotta dance too!
A few years later when I finally heard the studio version of “My All,” I was dismayed when the ballad simply faded out at the end, no pulsing dance beat to be found. I searched high and low for that dance version. Not long after securing the audio file of one of the dance mixes (thanks Morpheus!), began acquiring the CD singles that held all the mixes. My voracious appetite for CD singles, and undying love for dance remixes can be credited largely to Mariah incorporating that “My All” remix into her performance.
Mariah also served up Diva in her ensemble, which she playfully joked about between songs. “Do you like the ensemble?” To which you can hear an audience member respond with “you’re werkin it!” And she continues with “cause it’s all about the ensemble when you’re a diva.”
Her second song of the evening was a gospel-inspired cut from her 1991 album Emotions. The song, in which Mariah details some of the many perils she endured on her road to stardom, was co-written and produced with C&C Music Factory’s David Cole and Robert Clivilles. It’s a beautiful intersection between gospel and house music, and came accompanied by a gospel choir for this performance. “I know you’re all music industry people, but you can get up,” Mariah playfully shaded to the audience, who willingly obliged. Mariah got so into it that one point she started running back and forth on the stage, a moment that has been endlessly gif’ed in years that followed.
Up next was the incredible Gloria Estefan. It’s unclear how the sets were doled out, but Gloria was the only artist to receive a 3-song slot and not include any guests during her performance. She did however, give a solid history of her catalog, from old, to new.
Gloria was the only artist who’s promoted release wasn’t already in stores. Gloria! wouldn’t arrive until June of 1998, but Gloria still made sure to promote. She opened her set with her hit cover of Vicki Sue Robinson’s disco classic “Turn The Beat Around.” This live performance gives it a heavier emphasis on the Miami Sound Machine percussion. It’s also hysterical to watch Gloria fight with her wrap, which got caught in her heel as she attempted to shed it. Aside from a little laugh as it happened, she didn’t miss a note.
She gave the Divas audience the premiere of gloria!’s lead single. Funny enough, “Heaven’s What I Feel” was originally pitched to another diva on the roster that night: Celine Dion, who passed on it. The song made for a perfect fit for Gloria, with highs and lows.
Finally, Gloria gave the audience some “oldies” as she called them, a 5-song 80’s medley that began with her earliest hit with Miami Sound Machine, “Dr. Beat,” and spanned all the way to 1989’s “Get On Your Feet.” These selections further emphasized Gloria’s dominance over a dance beat, making her announcement of a “dance album, top to bottom” feel formidable for the audience.
Up next was one of country music’s brightest stars, Shania Twain. Shania was riding high by 1998. Her second album, 1995’s The Woman In Me, had recently been certified 11x Platinum (that’s a Diamond certification plus one). Her third album, 1997’s Come On Over was already 3x platinum by the time Divas took place. She opened her set with the now-classic “Man! I Feel Like A Woman.” It’s always been a Shania staple for me because of this show. However, it wasn’t a single when Divas occurred, and the iconic music video was likely not even conceptualized, let alone shot. In fact, it wasn’t even released as a single until almost a year later. It’s one of, if not the, earliest live performance of “Man! I Feel Like A Woman.”
Shania was the only performer who paused in the middle of her set to discuss the subject at hand and emphasized the importance of music education in schools. “If it wasn’t for music class in school, I think I would’ve been a dropout,” she told the audience.
She wasn’t the only one who shared remarks though. Just before Shania’s set, Mariah took to the podium to not only crack a few diva jokes but also emphasize the importance of music education. She then looked to the monitors, where a video package provided more information. It also included a special message from President and First Lady Clinton, who helped kick off the initiative, which included President Clinton presenting his famed saxophone to a budding school-age musician, underscoring just how significant Save The Music was.
After her first song, Shania grabbed her guitar, sat down, and delivered a stellar rendition of her then-current single “You’re Still The One.” It remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s country enough to twang through, but pop enough to satisfy my pop-leaning palette. And Shania’s vocal that night is flawless. Then it was time for the big moment.
The center spot on the show was given to Aretha, who damn near skipped the whole thing. As has been heavily documented, an air conditioning snafu caused Aretha to walk out of rehearsal and leave the entire crew unsure as to whether or not she would actually return for the show. There’s actually rehearsal footage that’s been broadcast where Aretha can be heard recognizing the issue. “The air is on,” she can be heard saying to producer Ken Ehrlich, prior to her departure.
I most enjoy Mariah’s recollection of the situation. Mariah was simply in awe of the fact that she was going to sing with Aretha. It also didn’t help that Aretha initially suggested the two sing a Mariah song that she loved, “Dreamlover,” which Mariah said her heart wouldn’t have been able to take. At Mariah’s suggestion and relief, Aretha “mercifully” agreed to do “Chain of Fools.”. Until she arrived, giddy as a schoolgirl to rehearsal, to find Aretha on her way out. She greeted her with, “Mariah, they’re playing games, and I’m not having the games. So we won’t be rehearsing this evening.” Though she didn’t say it out loud, Mariah’s reaction was “Wait. Who the fuck is playing games?!”
Aretha did return, and the twelve dozen roses the producers sent her ahead of the show as an apology for the air conditioning probably didn’t hurt the situation. Aretha was on fire in 1998. Aretha’s first studio album in 7 years, A Rose Is Still A Rose, had been released just weeks earlier. The lead single, produced by an on-the-cusp-of-superstardom Lauryn Hill was proving to be a surprise hit. And less than 2 months before Divas, Aretha had made her monumental last-minute opera debut stepping in for Pavarotti at the Grammys.
Her set opened and closed with cuts from A Rose Is Still A Rose. She performed the title track and the second single, “Here We Go Again.” The latter was coincidentally produced by Mariah’s friend Jermaine Dupri and co-written by Mariah’s friend/background singer Trey Lorenz. Both performances were curiously left off the official releases of the show. They were the only performances from the broadcast omitted from the releases.
Despite the omissions, Aretha’s label didn’t waste her appearance. The single cover for “Here We Go Again” used a photo taken at Divas. And the song’s music video was built around Aretha’s performance of the song on the show.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t available through other methods. My interest in Aretha prompted my dad to start taking me to then then-abundant record stores in the West Village. The first stop was a spot called Revolver Records on 45 W. 8th St. As I’ve learned in my adult years, they specialized in bootlegs. One such bootleg was of VH1 Divas Live. With a blue cover instead of the standard red, along with some photo editing worse than the actual design, it stood out. What also stood out was that it had both of Aretha’s tracks that were cut from the official release. It took a few trips but I finally convinced my dad to shell out the $24.98 for it (the very faded price sticker is still on it, along with the very faded 10-98, indicating the month it hit the shelves). And I’m glad he did.
The crowning moment of Aretha’s mid-show set came mid-set. After receiving an overwhelming response from the audience (hey, this was the Queen of Soul after all), she launched into a not-untrue story about not being able to rehearse, and how her “newest girlfriend” came and hung out with her in her trailer. That new, unnamed girlfriend would be joining her on stage. As Aretha launched into “Chain Of Fools,” out came Mariah Carey, donning not just a new dress, but also new nail polish. She had three dresses and three polish changes throughout the show “just for laughs.”
The performance garnered a lot of attention for how Aretha performed around Mariah. Whenever Mariah hit a note, Aretha hit a note beyond that, higher or lower. To some, it seemed as though Aretha was asserting dominance or trying to upstage Mariah. Producer Ken Ehrlich didn’t see it as a conscious effort. “I think Aretha just falls in love with those lights, and falls in love with crowd.” Mariah didn’t see it that way, either. Moments after leaving the stage with Aretha, she told VH1 cameras the moment was “an incredible honor.”
Later, she expanded further. “I was there in reverence of the Queen of Soul,” Mariah said in 2001. “I was inconsequential in that moment, That was Aretha’s moment, cause she’s her.” “She’s just a really cool person as well as an amazing idol. But the moment doing “Chain of Fools,” I didn’t know what was gonna happen.” And one of the most amazing things that occurs during this performance neither could have predicted. Mariah begins to follow Aretha’s runs. They hit first notes, second notes, and then on the third and final, they hit the same note. On the right footage, you see a look of satisfaction exchanged between the two.
The final performer of the night was Celine Dion. Forget winning album of the year at the 1997 Grammys, Celine was on fire thanks to a famous shipwreck. “My Heart Will Go On” was absolutely inescapable, to the point where Saturday Night Live even had to get in on the fun, and their parodies of the Divas even made it into 1999’s show.
Celine was the first confirmed booking for the show. While it’s never been suggested, it’s something of a coincidence that the date of the show was the “exact date, 86 years ago, that the mighty Titanic struck that iceberg,” as Celine told the audience. Funny enough, it was the one moment during the show that relied on a backing track. Not a vocal backing track, but the music itself. The band did play along, but the application of the track had something to do with the complexity of the music. Either way, Celine delivered a stellar performance and no one was the wiser.
My sister latched onto Celine, which I’ve always thought was because Celine’s jacket had a pink lining and she loved pink. I’m not entirely sure though. But either way Celine became hers and I became a closet Celine fan as a result. It was something about us both not being able to like her. God knows. I was young. Celine opened her set with another diva’s classic: Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” It had been included on her 1996 album Falling Into You, even after the song’s original producer, the now-disgraced (and dead) Phil Spector, refused to produce Celine singing the song. It was a dynamite performance.
One of the other high points of the show, was Celine’s duet with Carole King. Carole had just contributed a song to Celine’s 1997 LP Let’s Talk About Love, and this marked their first live performance of the song together. She was also a late addition to the show, and confirmed her appearance 9 days prior to the show date.
Despite being labeled a “special guest,” Carole King proved to be a crucial element in the show. As the Aretha drama unfolded, it provided an opportunity to add another performance. They came up with an acoustic piano-bar style performance of “You’ve Got A Friend.” Carole took the lead and accompanied on the piano, with Celine, Gloria, and Shania sitting shoulder to shoulder. They rehearsed it for the first time just hours before the show.
And then, it was time for the grand finale. As the audience cheered the immensity of the acoustic performance, Carole King emphatically told them, “this is why we write songs, so you get people like this to sing them… and this!” Aretha took the stage mid-sentence for the grand finale.
It wasn’t a guarantee that it was going to happen though. Wayne Isaak, VH1 Divas co-producer and EVP of Music & Talent Relations at VH1 (and the author of the album’s liner notes) said on a 2001 VH1 All Access episode about the Divas shows that there was no plan set in stone for the finale to actually happen with all six women. They had asked everyone to participate, but there were no guarantees, especially concerning Aretha.
A Page Six item the day of the show also helped compel participation. It implied that Mariah didn’t want to be on the same stage as Celine Dion. As the producers recalled though, Mariah saw the article and effectively said, “to hell with that, I’m going to blow that whole notion out of the water.” Shania Twain even recalled everyone doing a run-through of the finale in her bus before the show.
The Divas all lined up, and after Aretha not only credited Clive Davis and VH1 for her appearance at the show, she acknowledged that she’d never performed “ (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” with Carole King, and that the song had been associated with her for “almost *ahem* 20 years,” a little time joke that didn’t seem to land. And away they went.
As it began, Aretha sang “would you forgive me? If I didn’t sing this song tonight? I don’t think so,” naturally nodding to her near-absence after the air-conditioning fiasco. The plan was for Carole to start it off, and in the live audio you can hear Carole begin, but Aretha took the reins instead. Aretha thanked her and continued on, and after Carole made one more failed attempt to get a verse in (Celine took over instead), she stuck to the chorus. Each Diva got their line in, with Aretha adding some authoritative melisma after, and they delivered a once-in-a-lifetime rendition of the classic.
At the end of the song, Aretha took charge, acknowledged her background singers, and delivered a stunning finish that reaffirmed her title of Queen of Soul. Celine inserted a few runs that have been deemed “competitive,” but Aretha maintained her dominance over the moment, which only extended as she immediately cut into Rev. Clay Evans’ “I’ve Got A Testimony,” which was retitled “Testimony.”
For nearly 10 minutes, Aretha took the Divas and the audience to church. Though the full footage has either never been released or is sitting in a vault somewhere, watching the other women attempt to keep up is amazing. They truly had no idea what to do, short of Mariah Carey, who has endlessly recalled slipping back towards the background singers and giving Aretha room to run the show.
This of course, is that big “diva moment” that is seen as a competition. Out came Celine, seemingly attempting to compete with Aretha again. And yet, it was a simple cultural gap. Celine didn’t understand gospel and what was happening, she saw it as an opportunity to have her moment with Aretha, and has said as much in years that have followed. Aretha on the other hand, was, as Mariah put it, the equivalent of a jazz bandleader. She ran the show, and was going to make sure you knew it.
Eventually, Aretha had delivered an adequate testimony, and the surprise gospel performance wound down as the women said their goodnights. They posed for a group photo backstage, and VH1’s first installment of Divas came to a close. At the time, it became VH1’s highest rated program in the network’s 13-year history, with over 20 million tuning into the initial broadcasts. It also helped raise significant awareness for Save The Music, which has done tremendous work in its 25+ year history.
I have worn out the audio of that show. The CD and booklet are a little beat-up, and I love that it shows the life it’s lived since I got it nearly a quarter century ago. The performances I staged in front of my tv and in my bedroom as a child, pretending to be each of these incredible women, have long informed the person I am today. And I can go riff-for-riff lip-syncing nearly every performance of this show. Try me sometime.
With the exception of Aretha, my first exposure to so many of these great women began on that stage, and the stages the show occupied in the years that followed: Mariah Carey. Gloria Estefan. Shania Twain. Celine Dion. Carole King. Tina Turner. Mary J. Blige. Whitney Houston. Brandy. Faith Hill. Diana Ross. Destiny’s Child. RuPaul. Jill Scott. Celia Cruz. I learned all of their names and became fans of many of them because of VH1’s Divas series. That’s the power of music, and of a solid concept.
25 years later, I’m still waiting for a lot on the Divas front. Right now, only Mariah’s solo performances, and her duet with Aretha have made it into the streaming age. The show is in desperate need of a reissue on vinyl. It’s also long been time that not only Aretha’s solo tracks, but also Carole King’s performance of “It’s Too Late” (which happened before “You’ve Got A Friend”), all see the light of day. Plus all the years that followed. These shows were formative to so many, not just me. It’s long been time that they be made available for the world to enjoy and marvel over. The network had no problem officially uploading “Chain Of Fools” to YouTube in the wake of Aretha’s 2018 passing. Now it’s time to do the rest. And that’s my testimony.