Sir Elton John celebrated his foundation’s 26th year Monday night with an extravagant event hosted by Gayle King. But it was hard to top last year’s, which he describes as one of the best nights of his life.
That’s in part because Aretha Franklin performed at the Elton John AIDS Foundation fall gala in 2017 — and it ended up being her last performance ever.
“She was so sick,” John told reporters Monday night before the event at Cipriani in Manhattan. “And we went to see her before the show and she was so frail.” Franklin was due to perform at John’s gala in 2016, but ultimately had to pull out. “I said, ‘Are you okay?’ She said, ‘I can’t let you down again,’” John, 71, recalled the Queen of Soul telling him.
Last year’s soirée took place at NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“I think she was really inspired by the situation that it was in a cathedral,” the music legend continued. “She came onstage and just got better and better and better as the evening wore on. She played the piano. I was with Sheryl Crow and Rosanne Cash, and we were crying because I didn’t think she’d ever perform again. She was that frail. But boy did she perform. And what an honor. It was one of the greatest nights of my life.”
Franklin ended up succumbing to pancreatic cancer just nine months later on Aug. 16, 2018.
John honored her in his speech Monday night. “She just smiled her sweet smile at me and said, ‘I don’t want to let you down,’” he recalled of the conversation they had before the event. “I honestly didn’t know how she could perform in her physical condition … and she did perform. She raised the roof … she made us all weep. She gave the performance of a lifetime.”
John is equally impacted by the work he does with his foundation, which raised $3.9 million on Monday for AIDS prevention, treatment, supporting services, and advocacy programs across the globe.
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He told PEOPLE he is still moved by everything he experiences with EJAF, 26 years later.
“Especially when you see the people that you’ve given the money to, who are so grateful. Sometimes you think, ‘I’m running out of steam here, I don’t know if I can carry on,’ and then you go and visit the projects that you fund, and these people who have nothing compared to anybody else are so grateful for what they’ve been given and the hope that they’ve been given. You think, ‘Oh my God.’ They’ve just energized you to go back and do more. So that’s why we keep doing this; there are people who still need our help. And until they stop needing our help, we’ll be doing it.”