Aretha Franklin, who died today at the age of 76, was the greatest R&B singer of all time and one of the most legendary entertainers of the 20th century. She also did a wrestling thing once or twice.
If you were a young wrestling fan in 1987, you will always associate Aretha Franklin with WrestleMania III, a show that marked the apex of the WWF’s Hulkamania era. Close to 100,000 people packed the Pontiac Silverdome outside of Detroit to see Hulk Hogan defend his title against his former friend Andre the Giant in the main event of a show that also featured Alice Cooper as the second for Jake Roberts, Roddy Piper’s (short-lived) in-ring retirement, and Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat’s legendary Intercontinental title bout, which was the greatest WWF match of the 1980s.
Before any of that action could start, though, Aretha Franklin kicked it all off with “America the Beautiful.” Seated at a piano just a few feet from the ring, surrounded by the throngs of wrestling fans on the floor of the Silverdome, Franklin soars in this short, simple rendition of the patriotic classic. She wasn’t the first to open WrestleMania with the song that would open almost every one of them over the last 30 years—Ray Charles started the tradition with his own amazing performance at WrestleMania II—but to this day her WrestleMania III performance might be the most memorable. It was so stirring that when WWE returned to Detroit for WrestleMania 23 in 2007 they once again asked Aretha to open the show with “America the Beautiful.”
(This wasn’t her only connection to WrestleMania III. The show’s official theme song was Franklin’s 1985 hit “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” Yeah, that song played over footage of the Junkyard Dog bowing to Harley Race, Piper and Brutus Beefcake cutting Adrian Adonis’s hair, and Hogan hoisting the 500-and-something pound Giant up for that iconic body slam. Here’s the proof.)
WWE hasn’t posted the footage of Franklin singing at WrestleMania III to YouTube, so unfortunately we can’t embed it here. We can, though, embed this tweet from current WWE sensation Mustafa Ali, which includes a video from WWE.com. This is definitely a very minor and insignificant part of Franklin’s legacy, but for those who remember thrilling to WrestleMania III, her beautiful version of this American classic will never be forgotten.