In the late ’90s, women ruled the pop charts, but it took Ken Ehrlich to unite the performers and usher in a new Era of the Diva.
In 1998, Ehrlich and VH1 launched “Divas Live,” an annual benefit for the channel’s Save the Music Foundation that showcased the towering talents of both the day’s top female artists and the legends that influenced them.
Nearly 20 years later, the inaugural edition, which aired live from New York’s Beacon Theater, still stands out for Celine Dion, the first artist who officially signed on to appear.
“To me, the show felt like a very important career moment,” she says. “I mean I had the chance to share the stage with these amazing ladies … Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, Carole King, and the one and only Aretha Franklin, who was one of my idols growing up. This was such an huge honor for me. Those were special moments that I’ll never forget.”
The Queen of Soul found “Divas” memorable as well. “I enjoyed the girls,” Franklin says. “I (got) the chance to meet artists I didn’t know before.” In addition to performing solo, Franklin and fellow powerhouse Carey duetted on the Franklin classic, “Chain of Fools.”
Ehrlich and VH1 had previously partnered on a series of annual “VH1 Honors” specials, which featured younger artists paying tribute to their musical heroes. After that idea ran its course, the cable outlet and Ehrlich hit upon the notion of saluting women and featuring them performing not only their own hits, but also collaborating together on others. By doing so, they brought the term “diva” into the pop music lexicon.
“It might even have been (VH1’s) idea to call them ‘Divas,’ ” Ehrlich recalls, “but I said, ‘Let’s do a show with these great women who had already started to dominate the business.’ All these women made great records.
“Then it just grew. It was just the right time.”
The first “Divas Live” drew VH1’s highest ratings up to that date and spawned a live album, which reached No. 21 on the Billboard 200.
For Dion, who went on to work with Ehrlich on a number of TV specials and the second edition of her Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace, “Divas” remains a highlight for its collective platform of female talent. “I don’t think any of us would have called ourselves ‘divas,’ ” she says, “but it was a fun way to bring us all together and show a little bit of ‘girl power’ on stage.”
One performance from the first “Divas” stands out for Ehrlich. At the last minute, he needed to fill a slot after another song had to be dropped. At rehearsal, he asked Dion and Estefan to sing “You’ve Got a Friend” with King. The morning of the event, he held an extra rehearsal so Twain could join in.
The quartet’s performance was “beautiful,” Ehrlich says. “That was a great moment.”
Ehrlich produced three “VH1 Divas” specials, featuring Cher, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child, Faith Hill, Chaka Khan, LeAnn Rimes and Donna Summer.