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“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have Gretchen Wilson sing 'Free Bird' with Johnny Van Zant? Then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have Tim McGraw sing 'Ramblin’ Man' with Dickie Betts? And then I figured, how can you not finish this whole thing off with 'Sweet Home Alabama'? Every one of those songs is an anthem, so how can I go wrong?”

KEN EHRLICH TALKS GRAMMYS

The Show’s Longtime Producer Frames Out Sunday Night's Spectacle, Explains How He Comes Up With All This Stuff
This year, Ken Ehrlich begins his second quarter century producing the Grammy Awards. Starting with Sunday’s show, Ehrlich becomes executive producer, along with John Cossette, son of longtime executive producer Pierre Cossette, who’s retiring. Apart from the Grammys, every one of the 10-12 specials Ehrlich produces a year go through his company, Ken Ehrlich Productions. Now that we’ve rolled the credits, let’s see what Ken had to say to HITSBud Scoppa, who still doesn’t have TiVo or a flat-screen and whose definition is anything but high.

The Grammys are just days away. Are you crazed?
Not any more than usual. It’s a process.

How did you first make a name for yourself?
I did this very eclectic PBS show called Soundstage back in the ’70s. It was the first time anyone had seen Tom Waits or Randy Newman on TV. I just booked it—I didn’t care if anybody was watching at that time. Then I moved out here in ’76 and have now spent almost 30 years trying to keep music on television.

And now you care if people are watching, right?
Now I care a lot if people are watching. I have to care. But I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive; I never thought it was. We do 10 or 12 shows a year, the Grammys obviously being the biggest and most important. I know what you’re interested in is a little less than how great Ken Ehrlich is as a TV producer, but what people tell me is that both my historical perspective and my ability to understand artists—and get them to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do—is what separates our shows from other people’s.

Gimme an example.
Prince
and Beyonce, which was arguably one of the best musical moments on television. Eminem and Elton. The first Grammy show I did was Neil [Diamond] and Barbra [Streisand], the first time they ever did “Bring Me Flowers.” The Clash “London Calling” segment three years ago, just after Joe Strummer died, with some people I’d worked with before: Bruce, Dave Grohl, Elvis and Tony Kanal from No Doubt. Last year the thing that resonated second to Prince and Beyonce was that funk segment that went from Earth, Wind & Fire into OutKast, Robert Randolph and then the George Clinton free-for-all. I kept thinking that, whether you were 17 or 55, you could look at that piece and say, “Gee, that’s fun.” And it was almost 11 minutes long, which is maybe one of the longest pieces of continuous music we’ve ever done. And this year we’re gonna go longer with one.

Can you reveal any secrets about Sunday night?
I can. For the opening this year, I’m gonna put five bands together. I’m gonna wrap it together with the Black Eyes Peas doing “Let’s Get It Started,” and they’ll lead us on a musical journey stopping at Gwen Stefani and Eve doing “Rich Girl,” Los Lonely Boys doing a little bit of “Heaven,” Maroon 5 doing “This Love” and Franz Ferdinand doing “Take Me Out.” It’s gonna sing. Then there’s what I think of as the funk segment for the Red States. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have Gretchen Wilson sing “Free Bird” with Johnny Van Zant? Then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have Tim McGraw sing “Ramblin’ Man” with Dickie Betts? And then I figured, how can you not finish this whole thing off with “Sweet Home Alabama”? Every one of those songs is an anthem, so how can I go wrong devoting nine minutes of my show to them? I can feel that one being a score.

Any other segments you can break down for me?
For “Jesus Walks,” Mavis Staples and John Legend are gonna do a little bit of “I’ll Take you There” at the top, which’ll lead right into Kanye’s thing, and then, in the middle of it, we break away to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama doing “I’ll Fly Away” and then come back to Kanye, who finishes it. We’re gonna de a tsunami relief thing. I called Yoko and asked her if she would give us “Across the Universe.” So it’s Bono, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones and Tim McGraw, and the backup band will be Velvet RevolverScott Weiland and Slash will have solos. Brian Wilson, who’s this year’s MusiCares person, will also be a part of it. You’ll be able to download the song from iTunes, and 100% of the proceeds go to the Red Cross.

You love to mix it up, don’t you, Ken?
You young folk—not you—call it mashing, but all it really is is collaborations. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing for 30 years.

Can you single out any of these “special segments” that was better on paper than in reality?
The Beatles segment last year was not my favorite. What I think I learned after doing this as long as I’ve done it is, you really can’t do the Beatles. I thought they tried hard and they were game, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t the Beatles, and it wasn’t even an incredible simulation. But not everything can be a home run. If I can do a show that has five or six home runes and the rest doubles and triples, then I’m OK. I don’t like singles.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the Grammys for you?
The fun for a producer is when you get to produce. A lot of producers are bookers. But with this show, which is the biggest show of all, it’s a lot easier because people want to be on the Grammys, and they’ll go along with you to a certain point in terms of your vision of saying, “How about this?” It doesn’t always work, but I’ve got a pretty good track record of artists who, after the first time you work with them either trust you or they don’t, and a lot of the artists we’ve worked with over and over are artists that I’ve gained some trust with.

Do you get bummed out when people say, as they invariably do, that the show was boring or not as good as usual?
I get more upset with people who walk up to me after a Grammy show and say, “That was the best Grammy show in years.” Because that means to me they don’t remember that they said the same thing to me the year before. The press takes shots at the show ’cause we’re an easy target. I don’t think much of a couple of the other shows, and I’m not gonna mention them. I do respect MTV, but the VMAs isn’t really an awards show, it’s a spectacle. I think they do it well and have fun with it, and sometimes they reach too hard, but every time out they try. I don’t know if you know this, but I created the MTV Movie Awards.

I do, Ken—I did my homework. So how’s your rivalry with Joel Gallen?
You don’t wanna go there. Pass.

What keeps you going?
I just love music, and I love the show. Is it as hip a show as MTV? No, but that’s not our audience or our direction. What we need to do is to reach a pretty broad audience with a pretty broad approach to music, but when we can, throw a Robert Randolph on stage, who, whether you’re hip or not, you still might not know about, but he lights up the stage. What we’ve moved more toward in the last several years, during the…how do I say this?...the Neil Portnow era, as opposed to saying “the post-Mike years,” he’s gotten the concept that we need to separate ourselves more from these other shows, and we need to somehow get across to an audience that they’ll see things on the Grammys that they won’t see anywhere else. When Mike was around, I would do maybe two of these special segments a show, but each year in the three years since Neil’s been around, we’ve increased the number of these moments.

So what’s next?
We’ll do another Celine—we’ve done all of her stuff—and a Destiny’s Child show. We’re in the midst of working out a series of shows with AOL, which I firmly believe is a lot of the future of music.

You’ve been doing this forever, and you sound like a kid in a candy store. What’s up with that?
I don’t want it to seem as though it’s “Ken Ehrlich’s Grammys,” ’cause it’s not. Neil is amazing. I don’t think it’s a secret that I didn’t have a great time for a number of years with the other guy; he was not easy to work with, and I’ll say on the record that the difference is, Neil is remarkable. It’s fun to share ideas and collaborate. And here at our place, Walter Miller, who’s my co-producer and director, we started on the show the same year, and he lives for it. Tisha Fine, who books the show, is wonderful. And if there’s any room for puffery in the piece, the relationship with CBS has been wonderful.

What do you do while the show’s on the air?
I’m not sure that I’m not more of a pain in the ass than a help, but I will walk up to every act before they go on stage, give them a gentle pat on the ass or a kiss and say, “OK, this one counts.” I’m a cheerleader at that point. Then I’ll go down to my station under the stage—the mole hole—and get on the headset.

What’s the biggest crisis you’ve ever had to deal with?
There was the year that Pavarotti called in sick 20 minutes after we went on the air, and we had a 45-piece orchestra and a chorus of 30 to do “Nessun Dorma.” He called and said, “I am sick—I cannot perform tonight. What will you do?” I said, “The first thing I’m gonna do is get off the phone.” Then, I remembered someone had told me that Aretha had sung “Nessun Dorma” at the MusiCares thing. I ran up three flights of stairs to her dressing room, and she’s sitting there with the fans going, fanning herself and eating pastrami. I asked her, and she said, “That sounds like fun,” and 45 minutes later she was onstage, in her glory, doing “Nessun Dorma.” Aretha saved the Grammys.

That’s a good story.
I got a lot of stories…but I don’t wanna get to the point where that’s all I have.  

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