When Aretha took the stage at New York City’s Beacon Theater on April 14, 1998 for VH1 Divas Live, it was a victory lap and a masterclass. Fresh off her triumphant last-minute stand in for Luciano Pavarotti with her jaw dropping performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammy Awards, Aretha, veteran diva of the bunch, showed the girls how it was done.
The evening was supposed to conclude with the unforgettable performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” featuring the other four headlining divas: Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey. The song’s co-writer Carole King also joined the bunch for the first (and only) performance of the song with Aretha. It was an incredible moment seeing all those women joining forces in song. Yet what unfolded afterwards that truly cemented Aretha as the evening’s queen diva.
After she finished dominating the closing of “Natural Woman” (going as far as introducing her background singers while the other divas stood around), Aretha immediately uttered “alright, take it on home” and the piano went on it’s way. She launched into a charged up version of the Reverend Clay Evans’ “I’ve Got A Testimony”. While the original has a very straightforward gospel-clap-driven vibe, Aretha’s semi-impromptu live version cranks up the tempo, giving it an accelerated feel driven by the fast-moving piano and punctuated by the brass section. It’s impossible not to stop your feet and clap along.
As this happens, the other divas immediately do their best to keep up. On one side of the stage, Carole King, Celine Dion, and Shania Twain break into a synchronized dance while on the other, Gloria Estefan claps and stomps her feet. The only one who doesn’t start moving is Mariah Carey. She kind of just stands there because (even in 1998) you could shoot bullets around that woman’s stilettos and it still wouldn’t be cause for her to dance.
“Y’all might as well get ready cause we gon have church here tonight.” Aretha announces about 7 minutes into “Testimony”, after a breakdown of her own testifying. She looks towards Mariah Carey, who wraps her arm around Aretha and echoes Aretha’s chants of “Jesus” before falling back towards the background singers.
Then, Celine Dion steps up with a cry of “ooo-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah”, and the diva battle royale begins. All but the percussion and tambourine drop off, and Aretha and Celine have a good old fashioned riff-off. It’s one of the most iconic and infamous moments in VH1 Divas history, with neither diva relenting for the other.
After the battle comes to an end Aretha continues on sangin’ for another minute or so after the riff-off before victoriously calling it a night. The funniest part of all of this? Aretha didn’t rehearse for the show, yet this performance of a song she’s never performed before seems noticeably polished and organized.
Listen to Aretha Franklin giving the other divas her “Testimony”: