Why Aretha Franklin Didn’t Rehearse for Her VH1 ‘Divas Live’ Performance

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

From left: Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Shania Twain and Celine Dion

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.


The Wheeler Opera House in Aspen Colorado had production offices under the floor right in front of the stage. As I found out in February of 1997 the floor (or ceiling depending on where you were) does not safely support hundreds of people jumping up and down.

Why were they jumping up and down? Well, here is where the story starts…

Looking back now, I realized how incredibly lucky I was during the 90’s to have worked at VH1. The channel for what ever it’s failings were, was committed to music at a time when music was about to enter a very different era. Digital meant very little in 1997, and the notion of music from a computer was not really on many radars.

1997 was my last year at VH1 as a fulltime employee and while my career was about to ascend I still got to shoot many interesting gigs for them. Series like “Storytellers,” big live specials like “Divas” and cool concerts like “INXS Rocks the Rockies!”(which very indirectly lead to my Directing “RockstarINXS” for CBS eight years later, but that’s another story).

The INXS concert was fairly straightforward – it would be a one-hour special to air a few weeks after I shot it. The budget was, as I remember about 200K, low, but doable, partly because the Producer/Director was staff and thus free (me).

The concert would be taped at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen Colorado to go with a VH1 affiliate/advertiser get away, which is a combination vacation/blow job to the lucky invitees. VH1 was of course a cultural juggernaut in 1997, cynicism aside, we had “Behind the Music,” “Storytellers,” “Divas Live” (oh that didn’t happen until 1998… well we had “Pop Up Video” and we had lots of arrogance from our upper management, particularly from the top of upper management). Plus, we were in fucking Aspen, Colorado and I could ski and then shoot a concert with the very fun and visual INXS.

I got into Aspen about a week before the shoot, because I needed to see how my skiing ability was, and much to my surprise, a few private lessons later I was decent on the blue slopes.

As far as the show, INXS could not have been better to work with or have better accents. They were totally down with my concept to put a ton of ripped up posters on the upstage brick wall and light and go! Raw, and to the point. We got to the Wheeler to remove the first ten rows of seats and have an area for the fans (some were allowed in from the town) to mosh, or dance or simply jump up and down in front of the stage. INXS requested one more thing, a ladder leading up to the first opera box be left intact. I would see why during the song “Devil Inside.”

Well all was going great, I had a small, but “A” crew and staff with me and everything was pretty damned perfect. The band arrived from Australia about four days prior to the taping to acclimate to the 14K ft. altitude. They also took a small camera (by 1997’s definition of a small camera) and shot great behind the scenes stuff with the band and their crew, including some really moving and genuine moments with Michael Hutchence, who a few months later tragically took his own life.

The day prior to taping, the band loaded into the Wheeler, and I got to know them a little better. They were an incredibly cool bunch of people. Cool in the sense of being funny, nice, talented, and who just happened to have sold 55 million records.

Their lead singer was Michael Hutchence, who brimmed charisma without trying. I was sitting in the opera house with the INXS manager, and Michael was coming on and off stage with different outfit choices. All I could think was “I’m witnessing a bonafide fucking rock star.” One shirt choice was a black lace top, which was so cool, and so only cool on a rock star.

We did a sound check/rehearsal during the day and about 15 minutes into the band going full throttle on stage, the Production Manager comes in the truck and tells me the ceiling of the production office, which was right under the front of the stage was vibrating quite a bit. I looked at him and said something to the effect of, “I don’t care, it’s a rock concert.” I may have added some off color language, which in those days I did on occasion (if anyone reads this who knows me you might be rolling your eyes … noted).

Rehearsal ended, and next was the show to shoot in about 3 hours. Now the time after a rehearsal and prior to the actual taping often is a time of nervousness, pacing and not eating. That night I was feeling so pumped and relatively stress free that I ate, laughed, and generally enjoyed myself.

For whatever reason sometimes TV shows just take on a life of themselves and as the Director you just go along for the ride. INXS “Rocks the Rockies” was such a TV concert. It simply was amazing start to finish. The band was loose and tight all at the same time, they were so happy to be up there and the audience could not have been more engaged. The show felt intimate but it also felt like a real fucking rock show.

Of the many moments I remember, the one which still stands out to me 18 years later was the performance of “Devil Inside” – Remember the ladder leading up to an opera box? Well, Michael used it and sang half the song from there. The placement of the jib could not have been better- the shot speaks for itself.

Oh yes, you were wondering about the floor, yes that floor which was on top of the Production Office that started to crack. Apparently the Wheeler Opera House never tested its strength when several hundred people are bouncing on it and music is played at about 105 decimals, but by song 3 of the show, I sensed a panic about me. I didn’t stop directing, I was in it, nothing short of an electrical failure would get my head out of the monitors I was staring at, but I was also “Producer” and knew that there would be a discussion about this after we wrapped.

There was that discussion where I was told the floor cracked to the point that everyone in the production office needed to get the fuck out. They solved the impending disaster by literally installing 10 2’by4’s and propped the fucker up. No one got hurt and I got one great rock n roll story to tell.

Looking back now, I realized how incredibly lucky I was during the 90’s to have worked at VH1. The channel for what ever it’s failings were, was committed to music at a time when music was about to enter a very different era. Digital meant very little in 1997, and the notion of music from a computer was not really on many radars.

For that one night in Aspen it didn’t matter.

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If I were going to be accurate, completely accurate, then the first time I directed a “live” TV show was in 1995. It had to do with Pete Townsend and asking a camera operator to walk backwards for 3 minutes… but really it’s not all that fascinating. So the second time I directed something live is going to be the story here and I’m going to refer to it as:

The First Time I Ever Directed Something Live:VH1 Presents: The Concert for Witness. Hosted by Tim Robins with musical guests Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant, Don Henley, Joan Osborne, Tony Rich, Nusrat Ali-Kahn, Gloria Estefan, Beethoven, Rod Stewart, Pete Townsend, Bryan Adams, and lots(ish) more. No, Beethoven was not present, because if he were, the President of VH1 at that time would think him very un-hip, part of the “old” VH1. But I digress, now on to the tale…

VH1 in 1994 was in the crosshairs of change, big change, the regime of Ed Bennett would be replaced by the appointment of not only a new President, but I believe John Sykes actual title was Emperor, or perhaps Supreme Ruler? Either way the change that occurred inside VH1 land was pretty remarkable. The usual bloodletting of the old executives of course occurred, but on the bright-side, actual money seemed to be available to spend on productions.

How I kept working at VH1 is a bit of a mystery as I look back. I think Sykes was conflicted by my presence. On the one hand I was clearly pretty good at what I did and well respected in many circles, and I lived two floors under his boss Tom Freston down in trendy Tribeca. On the other hand, I was a “pre” John Sykes person and therefore very, very suspect. Perhaps in the end this was all projection, and he spent little or no time thinking about me.

So there I am an eight-year veteran of VH1 where I was the go-to guy for everything that had anything to do with music performances. I produced and directed a slew of series, concerts and specials, and was starting to build a name for myself. However, I was very frustrated when I would see MTV directors- well one MTV director in particular- get to do the VMAs and other really big stuff. In 1994 VH1 launched it’s first big live show VH1 Honors. I was not in the mix* to direct it. I took this as a personal affront and vowed to change it for 1995. Well, 1995 was not to be the year either.

*the phrase “in the mix” I probably never used but agents have repeatedly used the phrase so many times. Translation “in the mix” = you have a very small chance to get the gig. In Hollywood no means no, maybe means no and in the mix means most likely no.

VH1 Honors was produced by Ken Ehrlich and directed by Bruce Gowers, both of whom had done over seventy-five thousand live network specials and award shows between them; to that point I had watched several. So I was not asked in 1994 or 1995 or for the VH1 Fashion Awards of 1995, which was particularly galling because Gowers was not available and I was still not even “in the mix.”

So now 1996’s VH1 Honors is being planned, and well, this time I had a plan. I would demand VH1 push Ken Ehrlich to hire me to direct the show. The VH1 executives, I demanded this of did not include Mr. Sykes, but fate and budget cuts would look kindly on me and in secret negotiations, which did not include me, I got a call that I would in fact be directing the 1996 version of “VH1 Honors” from Los Angeles in April, 1996.

My fee would be zero, literally, but the gig would necessitate my joining the Directors Guild of America, and in an effort to keep me from losing money, something very legal and ethical was worked out (wink).

So there you have it, my wife and I had a little baby girl, Chloe, a loft in Tribeca, a dog named Riley, a salary that hit the very low six figures and now I would direct a big live TV special, life was ok.

Dissolve to a few months later…

My wife, daughter and I arrive in Los Angeles seventeen days prior to the April 18th live telecast. We checked into the Universal Sheraton right near the venue, and were placed in a pleasant suite, nicknamed the “Telly Savalas” room because the actor housed his mistresses there. About three days into our stay, the hotel manager asked my wife if we would mind moving to a different, nicer suite. In fact, the nicest suite, the “Presidential” suite. My wife decided she would answer for the family and said “yes.”

The suite was two thirds of an entire floor, with views on all sides. It had three bedrooms, a large dining room, a living room, and four baths. In other words about 3x the size of our humble loft on Duane Street in Tribeca. My left-wing brain was in direct conflict with my oversized ego. My ego won in straight sets.

Now there was a live three hour show to prep for, and the next two weeks I prepared, prepared, and than kept on preparing. I would say by the time we got to actually have cameras for two days of rehearsals- I was fucking prepared. I loved shooting music and had a blast working with the “A” variety crew in LA. Some of the things I imagined in my head were starting to materialize on the screen.

Shooting music and specifically “live” music on “live” TV is about a lot of things, but to me it must start with the close-up. No matter how many lights or big wide jib shots, we’ll never 100% capture the feeling of being there. Ah but close-ups are something which bring the intimacy and emotion to the screen. This was the show I learned the value of close-ups. I look back now and like some stuff I did, at other things I cringe, but I will always remember this special time.

I vomited next to the production truck right after dress rehearsal and four hours prior to the live show. It was not the catering, though the Line Producer demanded I eat something other than bread. I was nervous, so puking was good.

We started the show with Rod Stewart performing “Every Picture Tells a Story,” than he did “Reason to Believe” and even though it was not expected, we just rolled on.

When it came time for Don Henley the Hammond B3 was down. Coming back live in sixty seconds, Ken Ehrlich tells me to take a handheld, and when we get back on the air, host Tim Robbins will walk around and give a play by play of the situation. Well it was funny, at first, but when Tim got back to the non-working Hammond, there were five crews guys with backsides bent over and there were several butt cracks displayed on the screen. Great TV, Emmy deserving.

The Henley set finally included him playing a song, and it was fine. He was about to play his second song and guess what? Something in electronic land failed and this time I had no host and no band. Good ol Live TV! I cut to a very wide moving jib and told the operator to very slowly go forward. In about twelve seconds (or five years in live TV time) the music started.

Then it was Peter Gabriel’s turn. Up until that point in my life I had never had a better time shooting an act. It was one of those moments where I can’t imagine doing anything else. It felt like I was part of the performance, and in a sense, directing music live is performing.

I have my musical tastes, and like my political opinions, I share them very freely. However I will say that I have nearly universal respect for every musician I have ever worked with, music to me is as close to a god I don’t believe in.

Here is a link to the show.

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On February 16th, 2012, a service was held to honor and celebrate the life of Don Cornelius. I sat there surrounded by hundreds as we watched Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Jesse Jackson and Magic Johnson pay tribute to his life and influence. For those of you who might not know, Don is the creator and face of the one and only:

Sooouuuullll ttrraainnn!

This is my story of directing it.

I worked on Soul Train weekly dance show from 2001-2 and 2005-6. Little changed from the Soul Train re-runs of the seventies to the ones I did. Soul music in all its glorious forms and derivatives were showcased and informed a generation, both black and white.

Soul Train was iconic to me from the moment my eleven-year-old eyes watched the show and my ears heard the show. From 1971 to 74, Saturday mornings from 10:30 to11:30 were an incredible ride on the Train, with Soul Music, and Hot Girls; girls who were nothing like the Great Neck girls who never talked to me. These girls were something my going through puberty stage wanted, needed and dreamed about.

Soul Train featured a deep voiced, huge afro wearing host, the world famous Don Cornelius. Don was everything I thought was cool… I mean I wanted to be a New York Knick, Walt “Clyde” Frazier or Earl ‘The Pearl” Monroe but I was a skinny white Jew from Great Neck. I wanted to be Black, I wanted to be a Pro Basketball player or the host of Soul Train. Dream one faded in direct correlation to my not growing an inch after ninth grade. Dream two… well let’s just say I never hosted (go figure) but I did direct The Train some thirty years later, and I’m alive to tell you all about it!

It’s the year 2000 and I was living in LA for almost fifteen hours when I got a call, or maybe a page (miss those pages). The number I called back on was picked up by someone who answered “production office”… ok sounds secretive but after an odd thirty second conversation they figured out who I was and I found out it was the Soul Train Production office… wow I was going to have a meeting with Don Cornelius at their office in two days to discuss something.

Now I really never get nervous about meetings. Well Spielberg coming into the production truck on “On the Lot” was a wee bit intimidating but ya know, after enough Hollywood meetings, Hollywood meetings are, well just Hollywood meetings. No one tells the truth, says no, or secretly doesn’t harbor a not so subtle wish that your career implodes as theirs ascends. But I digress.

For some reason on the drive from my home In Agoura to the Soul Train offices on Sunset, my nerves decided to fire at once directly into my colon. Luckily I was so scared of being late I got there 90 minutes early, which only made me more neurotic as all versions of semi-rational thoughts crossed my mind: Why are they meeting with me? Do you they know I’m a director (no you idiot they think you are a caterer) My head started to fully spin when I pondered what the fuck am I going to say to Don Cornelius. My usual self-decrepitating NY Jew arrogance might not play so well. Do I talk Basketball? The current state of rap?? Finally the thought which caused colon attack number two was remembering getting two “Soul Train Greatest Hits” records as a birthday gift when I was eleven. But I didn’t have that vinyl anymore, it didn’t survive the purge when the compact disc was introduced fifteen years later. So how much of an idiot will he think I am if I mention it?

Attack two is dealt with and now I elevate up to the sixth floor and into a small and unassuming lobby and a receptionist says “hi.” I respond “hi.” Several beats go by where I fight off the urge to run, and I say I’m here to see Tony (Don’s son and Head of Production), as I dare not speaking Don’s name out loud. The lovely receptionist smiles, says please take a seat, not noticing I was already sitting, so I stood up and said thank you.

The wait in the lobby was short by Hollywood standards; I mean I got through T.C. Boyle novels waiting for CAA to allow me into their lair.

Saturday 15, 2002: I am directing Soul Train—Yes, that Soul Train—with the dancers, the third generation of insanely hot girls, even the updated versions of the longhaired asian girls. I think Chris Brown was a musical guest, it didn’t matter to me at the time, I shot the Soul Train Line Dance…

So I go into a conference room and meet Tony. After some light banter- it’s like all other meetings- I have forgotten about my digestive issues. Than literally as I start telling Tony why my directing his special and whatever show they are planning would greatly benefit them, I hear a door open and turn to see Don Cornelius, sans afro, but tall in a flowing shirt, leather pants and all legend in the flesh. I rise, shake his hand and collapse… no I didn’t collapse but I did bring up the “Greatest Hits” records I got and I as I started to rattle off the songs, Don says he knows the tracks and I make a self-deprecating joke which is met with an immediate turn to the special they wanted me to direct.

Three weeks later I’m shooting a special they had put together for the congressional black caucus, and fifteen thousand other people. I remember shooting for something like four straight hours and loving every second. What was missing on the organizational front with Soul Train Productions was more than made up for with passion for the music.

I had little contact with Don before we started shooting but at a break near the end of the very long evening, Don entered the production truck. Don told me he didn’t watch all that much of the “line-cut” but from what he did see, he liked it and used a metaphor comparing how he knew I could shoot music the same way he knew the theme music on Soul Train was good. I was insanely happy, even if I was a bit perplexed by the comparison, but needless to say on the drive back from downtown to Agoura Hills, the Soul Train theme was firmly implanted in my brain.

I was now the Director for the Soul Train Yearly Music Specials. But let’s face it- “Soul Train” is the Saturday Weekly series, the series that ran from 1969 at local UHF station in Chicago to become the longest running syndicated series in the history of American Television.

About two years after I met Don, I got the call, could I work a weekend worth’s of Soul Train?
…. Let me think…Ok yes.

Saturday 15, 2002, I am directing Soul Train; yes that Soul Train with the dancers, the third generation of insanely hot girls, even the updated versions of the longhaired asian girls. I think Chris Brown was a musical guest, it didn’t matter to me at the time, I shot the Soul Train Line Dance….

I walked into Paramount Studios and the Soul Train Stage where everyone had done the show before with an inner circle all-moving to Don. Right next to him was Reggie. Reggie was a stage manager and Don’s conduit to me. Reggie told me the basic do’s and dont’s which Don re-iterated. Number 1: “Girls, Girls, Girls’ i.e. shoot “Girls” during the dancing. Number 2: If Don’ is not getting what he wants he will call via the “Ringtown” … Reggie will warn me first.

I shot a dance sequence, than “Ringtown” which felt like I was in trouble with not only Don, but history itself. I got the note and continued shooing with Number 1 in my mind so to avoid Number 2.

I worked on Soul Train weekly dance show from 2001-2, and 2005-6. Little changed from the Soul Train re-runs of the seventies to the ones I did. Soul music in all its glorious forms and derivatives were showcased and informed a generation, both black and white.


I had conducted many interviews and “hung-out” backstage with many bands during my college Radio Station “punk” days, but nothing had prepared me for this; I was to produce a two-hour special with Miles Davis. Yes that Miles Davis, arguably the most famous Jazz musician ever.

Three years into the TV business I had fallen into producing a show on VH1 called “New Visions.” Being an ambitious Production Assistant would no longer apply. It wasn’t quite the big time, but it was a significant step in that direction.

Miles sat, he talked to Foley, to me, to camera, he blew some notes into his horn. Miles threw to videos of himself, Michael Jackson and others of his choosing. He painted live on the set, he revealed so much and left us to the connect the dots or just go with it.

“New Visions” was a show on Sunday nights on VH1 which meant there would be about twelve people watching, so the pressure was about as low as the money I had to shoot it with. We had guest hosts sitting in a tiny studio, leading into new age and some jazz videos. I had the idea to let them play live, It would be better for musicians to play than talk I reasoned.

Than an odd little started to happen. “New Visions” got some buzz. Record labels within the the new age, jazz, and progressive rock genres actually started calling me. So about six months after I started with New Visions, I’m on a plane heading back to NYC from LA. The airline messes up and I get moved up to first class. I am sitting next to a man, and we start talking (I imagined him wondering why this scruffy looking kid is sitting next to him). One thing leads to anothr as one drink lead to another. So before long I’ve rambled on and on about my vision for New Visions. There is a pause in my babbling, and he stares at me and says “Would you be interested in having Miles Davis on your show?”…. I thought for a nano second or so and said yes.

Turns out Peter Shukat, who managed Miles was my flying partner.

So in the fall of 1987 I was to produce and direct a two-hour show with Miles Davis hosting New Visions. Oh and his bass player at the time, Foley would be co-hosting? I had no pre-interview, no format, and little idea of what was going to happen but Miles would sit in the studio with his horn, his bass player, me on the floor, two cameramen, a anger-challanged engineer/TD/video shader, and Sharon Kelly a bright and gorgeous blond studio manager who Miles would utter a line to.

The next several hours were surreal, in fact I’m not sure surreal is the right word to describe what went down. Miles sat, he talked to Foley, to me, to camera, he blew some notes into his horn. Miles threw to videos of himself, Michael Jackson and others of his choosing. He painted live on the set, he revealed so much and left us to the connect the dots or just go with it.

PS: Peter passed away June of 2014, I had not been in contact with him for these many years, but what I know of him and our brief interactions with him, I can say that he was a true gentleman, and exquisite at what he did. He will be missed.

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Ray Davies of The Kinks once said and I paraphrase, “When I write songs my IQ goes way up.” I have always felt that my modest intelligence gets to the level of at least smart when I’m directing, and when I’m directing something live it goes to an even higher level.

So it’s December 1999 and I’m directing a Special for CBS called: “Sports Illustrated Presents the Athletes of the Century.” The special was live from Madison Square Garden (back when the Knicks didn’t suck). The name pretty much says it all, and with the exception of dead ones, nearly every famous athlete showed up. It was like the pictures on my wall growing up had suddenly came to life. I am not going to list them, go Google it, but I will say that the greatest name there was “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali.

Far better writers and historians can properly place Ali in sports and cultural history, his place is etched in our zeitgeist forever. So to be directing a show, which would climax with him being named “The Athlete of the Century” was something kind of historical.

The other categories of the night were not chopped liver (Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, to name a few) the show was fittingly built to climax with Mr. Ali. Billy Crystal paid tribute to Ali with a ten minute read which was visually aided by a giant screen that filled up the stage.

Then the moment happened and you can see it here (clip to come soon!):

Now at exactly (time to come with clip) the greatest athlete of the century slightly teetered to his right as he was walking the stairs to the stage. It was a slight, yet noticeable rocking and given the fact that Ali was dealing with Parkinson’s, could have been trouble.

Now I’m in the truck (the truck is where we controlled the broadcast and I sat in the director’s chair) and I’m on Camera 11 (I think), which was the steadi-cam. I asked the very talented Jeff Muhlstock, the steadi-cam operator, to wait on the stage and shoot Ali walking up with the crowd and Madison Square Garden behind him. It was a moment I had goosebumps watching, but then he teetered and my world STOPPED, vividly my mind raced to about ten places and stood still with simultaneous outcomes of what was next if he fell. If Muhammad fell, or was hurt, and I’m directing a live show on CBS with 15 million people watching, I had no idea what I would have done. Do I tell the camera(s) to zoom into a fallen icon? Do I cut to a high-wide and scream to master control to go to a commercial? Do I wait to hear the executive producer or network executive tell me what to do? There was no host, there are just fourteen cameras and me and no one is going to change that. The second played in quantum time, it had an arc to it in my brain. And then Ali regained his balance and walked right on up, shadow boxed with Billy Crystal, kissed him on the cheek, and accepted the award and that was it.

Now as I look back on that time, that moment, I’m still not sure what I would have done, what would even have been the right thing to do. I hope my humanity would have won out over my director instincts but I’m really not sure. It was something which can only happen in a live situation and I’m very glad it didn’t come to a choice. In the end a great boxer simply got an award he earned and I get to tell this story about that one second in December 1999.