“I wanted her to sing it to and for Whitney and forget about the 14,000 people there.”


An exclusive HITS dialogue with Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich by Roy Trakin
This year’s record-breaking 54th Annual Grammy Awards marked the 32nd time Ken Ehrlich has served as executive producer for the show, and the Cleveland native outdid himself with a production that was impeccably staged and included many of his cherished “Grammy Moments,” from opening the number, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s political “We Take Care of Our Own” to the climactic Paul McCartney jam on the closing Abbey Road medley, with the Boss joining Dave Grohl onstage. In between, there was Jennifer Hudson’s show-stopping “I Will Always Love You” tribute to Whitney Houston; Bruno MarsJackie Wilson-meets-James Brown-meets-Prince hybrid; the Beach Boys' reunion, a Glen Campbell tribute, Chris Brown’s comeback, an amazing 60-second performance by The Civil Wars, Taylor Swift picking a banjo, a Coldplay-Rihanna duet, a Bonnie Raitt-Alicia Keys homage to the late Etta James, and, of course, Adele’s triumphant rendition of her Record/Song of the Year winner, “Rolling in the Deep.” At the center of the spectacle was Ehrlich, pulling it all off with the aplomb of a savvy veteran who got his start creating the acclaimed PBS music series Soundstage in 1974. His only mistake was agreeing to share his thoughts with HITS’ resident Grammy Moment waiting to happen, Roy Trakin.

How does it feel 24 hours later? Have you come down yet?
It feels pretty good. But we leave Friday for Washington. We’re doing a tribute to the blues, Red, White & Blues, in the East Room of the White House for Black History Month, featuring Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Trombone Shorty, Shemekia Copeland and Keb Mo. It’s gonna be a pretty great show.

Neil Portnow recently told me you’ve always got to be prepared for something happening at the last minute at the Grammys, which turned out to be prophetic this year.
As you know, Luciano Pavarotti bailed on us while we were on the air at Radio City in 1998, the year we brought in Aretha Franklin to sing “Nessun dora” for him. And three years ago, we found out about Chris Brown and Rihanna during the dress rehearsal, so we turned to Justin Timberlake and Al Green to do a duet on “Let’s Stay Together.”

What was your first reaction on hearing about Whitney’s death Saturday afternoon?
I started crying, because I had worked with her any number of times over the years, as had most of the people on the show. We’re kind of an awards show family who move from one to the other. It initially cast a pretty long shadow over everyone. Not enough to stop us from working, but it was pretty tough.

So you worked through your grief.
Within an hour, I called Damian Smith, Jennifer Hudson’s manager, and told him we’d love to have her do something. She was, honestly, the first thought I had. A lot of people began contacting us saying they wanted to participate, but I wanted to keep it very simple. Then I called Rickey Minor, who was Whitney’s original musical director, and asked him if he would stand by, because I wanted him to be involved with his keyboard player Wayne Linsey. I never wanted Jennifer to go to that last “I” verse/chorus… I wanted her to sing it to and for Whitney and forget about the 14,000 people there.

I heard she broke up during the rehearsals, but it turned out to be a very controlled performance, even though there was a great deal of emotion.
When she came in for dress rehearsal, I wanted her to do it twice. The first time she did it, she brought a little more than was needed. That’s when I went up to her onstage, and for the second time, I stressed she was singing to Whitney, not the audience. And that’s when she pulled herself back in. Her instincts turned out to be right. I told her she had the freedom to keep it inside. I wasn’t looking for, quote-unquote, a performance. What might have colored the decision to go with Jennifer was, I had been standing in the exact same spot below the stage [when I heard about Whitney’s death] as I was before she sang “You Pulled Me Through,” after the murder of her mother, brother and nephew three years ago. That must have played some part in my mind, something that said to me, emotionally, this is what to do. I can’t tell you exactly why.

You have to be gratified with the ratings, the show’s best since 1984, back in Michael Jackson’s heyday.
There’s no question they were affected by what happened to Whitney. The last three years, we’ve been on an upward curve. There were a number of compelling story lines which went beyond this year’s charts: The huge interest in Adele coming back from her throat surgery after several months. What is Bruce Springsteen going to do? This was Katy Perry’s first appearance since her break-up with Russell Brand, not to overlook the performances by Glen Campbell and the reformed Beach Boys. I really felt this could be a great year for us.

Music provides comfort, like a New Orleans funeral band, during times of sorrow. It celebrates life.
I thought what LL [Cool J] did was phenomenal. It couldn’t have been framed better.

Some people wrote he went off script with the prayer.
No, but to give him credit, he was the one who came to me and said, “We need to do a prayer at the beginning of the show.”

The show has evolved over the last 10 years to become a snapshot of the music world at any given point in time.
Certainly, since Neil Portnow’s been there, and with his support, it’s become more of a document of record, not just of what happened in music or who’s been nominated. The Grammy Awards show has become the new fireplace—where people can come together. Where musical history meets what’s happening now.

Any comment about the controversy surrounding the Nicki Minaj performance?
It was her idea. We’re almost always—slight disclaimer—supportive of artists who come to us with a vision of what they want to do, that they think represents them best. Having said that, we then try to work with them and make sure—controversy aside—that it works creatively as a piece of television. At least 90% of the time, we’re successful with that. At the end of the day, I don’t think we were as successful as we’ve been in the past. When it’s the eleventh hour, which this was, and promised changes aren’t really made, I can’t spend all my time on one act. When they rehearsed it with us, we recommended several changes that would make it more accessible. Basically, they told us that they’d make those changes, but when it hit dress, they hadn’t. At that point, what are you gonna do? If we can stretch the boundaries for a young, Nicki Minaj-friendly audience, I’m all for it. You have to trust the artist’s creative vision.

With the explosion of social media, will the West Coast time zone continue to see a tape-delayed Grammy Awards?
I’m a traditionalist. For years, I’ve always felt we need to surprise our audience, give them something they’re not expecting. What I’ve learned over the past five years, the fact that this show is seen tape-delayed here really works for us. There were hundreds of thousands of people tweeting, Facebooking, texting and blogging that finale out to people, who could then watch it later that night. There’s a tremendous advantage to event television in the sense it’s the last “must-see” experience. For years, it’s been killing me that these performances exist in the moment, and we can’t let people know about them before they happen. I want to maximize my audience in one great bunch.

Any other goosebump-inducing moments for you in the show?
Well, the finale, but it didn’t start out that way. Paul was originally going to do “Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Five,” and he kinda knew it wasn’t something that I wanted. But how do you tell a Beatle, “Don’t play this song”? I got a call on Friday afternoon from him saying, “How would it be if we did this medley from Abbey Road?” And I said, “I guess that would be OK.” I think I have the kind of relationship with Paul—not that I caused this to happen, but I certainly caused him to think about it. At rehearsal on Saturday, he said to me, “I know you didn’t like it, mate. I just needed to come to it.” Glen Campbell, the Beach Boys. “Good Vibrations” sounds as good as it did the first time I heard it. Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys doing Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” was just precious. Taylor Swift was remarkable, too; the way we staged it was different than you’d see anywhere else. Nothing against the other guys, but the Grammys just do it better. Brian Stonestreet’s been our production designer for several years, and of course, Bob Dickinson is the best lighting designer in the history of television. That McCartney number, “My Valentine,” was shot with a single Steadicam camera, and it looks fantastic. I told him, “You go ahead and play ‘My Valentine,’ and millions of people are going to hear ‘Yesterday.’” He kind of looked at me and raised an eyebrow, and I just said, “That’s not a bad thing, Paul.”

The Civil Wars had about 60 seconds to make an impression. Was that banter at the beginning scripted?
Absolutely. We felt that we had to introduce them to an audience who didn’t necessarily know who they are. If I can give a little explanation of who they are, I wanted to give it a context.

Do you read what critics and the public are saying about the show?
I always feel you can learn. Unfortunately, the Internet provides access to everyone and anyone, so you have to be a little discerning. But I like to know what people are thinking.

Team Lipman doubles up. (11/26a)
Season's bleatings (11/23a)
Deck the Grammys with boughs of Holly. (11/24a)
Rolling out our U.K. Special print issue (11/24a)
Olivia, the Biebs, H.E.R., Doja Cat, Billie and Jon Batiste lead the way. (11/24a)
Stuffing (in face).

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