Director Michael Simon recalls the soul singer walking off the stage during rehearsals for the 1998 performance and how she made it work in the end: “There she was, this Mount Rushmore coming onto the stage.”
Aretha didn’t rehearse for the show. And the reason she didn’t rehearse was because she had requested that the air conditioning be turned off to protect her vocal cords.
But when she got there for rehearsals, for some reason the AC was still on and she walked off the stage. I was in the control booth and there was near-hysteria. “Why wasn’t the air conditioning turned off?!” Everybody kept asking but nobody had an answer. I’m guessing some house guy at the Beacon Theater whose job it was to turn on and off the air conditioning messed up. So there was no rehearsal for Aretha. And you could sort of tell during the program.
At one point, Carole King was sitting at a grand piano and had just finished singing “You’ve Got a Friend” with Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain and Celine Dion, and there was this huge applause and King said, “And this is the reason I write music,” referring to the audience giving her an ovation. But at that exact moment, Aretha walked onstage, ahead of her cue, right into the shot.
There was no spotlight, but there she was, this Mount Rushmore coming onto the stage. And it made it seem like King was saying Aretha was the reason she wrote music. But King was a good sport about it.