In 2005, Melissa Etheridge took the Grammys stage to join Joss Stone in a tribute to Janis Joplin — and another great moment in the show’s rich history was created. In this 2014 interview with the singer and her soon-to-be-wife, Linda Wallem, Etheridge looked back at her decision to perform right as she was wrapping up chemotherapy for breast cancer.
What did it mean in your life at that time to perform with Joss Stone at the Grammys?
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: I remember getting the call. [Executive producer] Ken Ehrlich said, “We’re doing a tribute to Janis Joplin. We’d love you to sing ‘Piece of my Heart.’” My first thought was, “Well, I don’t want anyone else to sing it, you know?” Then the second thought was, “Oh, I’m going to be bald.” Then I had to really think if I was going to have enough energy from —
LINDA WALLEM: She was very weak then.
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, I was in bed every day. Walking down the steps to my garden and back was like, woo, that’s a good day that I could do that.
WALLEM.: She could do the special dose because you weren’t working.
ETHERIDGE: Oh yeah, I was on dose-dense chemo because I didn’t have to work, so they could give me more than they usually give someone who’s, like, you know, trying to have a job and take chemo at the same time. And so I realized, okay, I quit the chemo. Then I realized I was going to have like two weeks and a couple days before I actually had to do the performance. I knew I’d be healthier. I knew I’d have some more energy. I felt it was an opportunity for me to step back into what I loved to do. I mean, 10 years ago when you were diagnosed, people thought, “That’s it, she’s out of here,” you know? So I wanted to show people that no, I’ve been through hell, yeah, this is awful but I am not dying. I wanted to present myself as, “I’m back, I’m not weak, this has made me stronger.” I just didn’t want anyone to make fun of me.
And you went out there bald. Were you scared about that?
ETHERIDGE: I was. I asked Rosie O’Donnell. She came to visit me and I said, “What do you think?” She goes, “Missy” — she always calls me Missy — “go bald, you should go bald.” I asked Steven Spielberg, actually. He’s a good friend of mine. He came and I said, “Do you think I should put a scarf on?” He goes, “No. You walk out there proud. You’re beautiful.” My surgeon literally said to me, “You’re going to want to get a wig because nobody wants to see a bald rock star.” And so after the Grammys I had an appointment with her. I came and she went, “Okay, I was wrong.”
What do you remember about that night?
ETHERIDGE: I remember backstage telling Joss Stone that this is the Grammys. People don’t stand up, they’re looking at their watches. They’re the worst crowd to play for because they all think they’re on TV so they just sit in their seats. Then my guitar player comes over and goes, “Melissa, you don’t know what you’re just about to do, do you?” And I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “I don’t think there’s going to be a problem with the audience.” So Joss sang her thing first, and when I walked onstage I realized at that moment they were so happy to see me.
Were you running on adrenaline?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah. The funny thing was, I had done the dress rehearsal earlier that day. And that’s the first time I did it with Joss, and Kris Kristofferson was there. He introduced us. He went and sat in the audience, and Joss and I sang. And he comes back onstage when I was done, and he was weeping. That performance was probably my best, and then later in the day I actually felt my energy getting really, really low. There’s a point in the song where I realize I’m running out of steam and I’ve got that scream to do in the end. What it actually did was force me to stay in one place. That enabled the camera to come really close on me. So it was actually a great performance for the camera. I’ve analyzed it because people have told me over and over, what a good performance. I’ve asked, why? Because I’m more subdued and then I let it all just blow in that last moment. There’s even a point where I make this kick with my foot, and I never do that, but that was all the energy I had. I just kicked my foot out. I went back home right after the performance. I was exhausted. And Linda actually called me like the next day and said, “Do you see what’s happening?” I said no. She goes, “Honey, you made the news. Oh my God, after you sang, everyone threw their wigs away.” There were bald people all over the place.
WALLEM: It was amazing. It was the top news story in the world of news. It challenged everybody. They had to look at their own thoughts and beliefs about everything. It was awesome.
ETHERIDGE: I swear, not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t mention that performance and how they’ve been touched by it.