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THE HITS INTERVIEW: KEN EHRLICH

Since he first began innovating four decades ago on the groundbreaking PBS series Frontline, Ken Ehrlich has been making—and breaking—the rules for live musical telecasts. This year will mark Ehrlich’s 35th straight year producing the Grammys, and he attacks the increasingly intricate event—including his trademark musical collaborations—with the boldness and enthusiasm he brought to his first telecast in 1980. We’re honored that this music-TV pioneer and super-mensch took an hour out of his insanely intensive preparation for the show to share his opinions and memories with our readers. And we didn’t even have to tell him we were from Billboard.    

So how’s it going, two weeks out from Music’s Biggest Night?
It’s already the biggest show we’ve done in terms of the sheer volume of music that will be on the screen. But I would hasten to add—not to be taken out of context—that big is not always better. But in this case, I’m really feeling good about the quality of the music, the quality of the performances; some of these combinations that we will be announcing are really signatures. You never know when you start this adventure, but if I could freeze this moment in time, it’s pretty good. It might not be tomorrow morning, but right now it is. 

Let’s put it in context. Are the Grammys in competition with the other awards shows, the AMAs in particular?
We are in competition with the AMAs. I probably shouldn’t say that, but of course we are. We’re not in competition with them date-wise anymore, because they used to be three weeks before us. They moved, which was a wise move on their part in a lot of ways, not the least of which is putting themselves in November, right in the middle of the time that people buy the most product. So I still believe that these two shows, probably more than the MTV VMAs or the country shows, are competitive, because for the most part we’re still vying for the same talent, although I think our talent pool is broader, and we are less totally bound by the charts, which is obviously what they do. 

Why don’t the AMAs move the needle like the Grammys do? Do you have a theory on that?
I have a theory on everything; half the time it’s totally off-base. I believe—I’ve said this before, but nobody listens, and I don’t even want to tell them this so that they can try and figure it out—but I believe that because of what we do with our artists, they capture the imagination of the viewer. By the time an act comes to the Grammys, with all the music television that’s available now, they’ve probably done that single 14 times. There’s no novelty to it, it’s usually over, and if t’s not over, it’s almost over. Our nomination period ends September 30, so there’s a built-in three-month obsolescence with the single. So what we try and do are things with an artist that elevates who they are, and doesn’t just throw them on a stage and they do that single. Like what we did two years ago with Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Sting and the Marleys doing “Locked Out of Heaven.” However worked any of these things are, they get new life from what we do with it. 

That’s a great instance.
It’s true. “Get Lucky” was over by the time the Grammys were on last year. You saw a number that you never thought you’d see on television. You saw Pharrell, Daft Punk, Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers. You saw a stage full of people doing this amazing version of this song—I’m getting a chill just thinking about it. That thing spiked like crazy. Because as many people that had hooked into that album, all of a sudden it was born again with that version. And that’s what we do, and I’d love to think that to some extent the artistic community trusts us more than they once did. What I’ve tried to do over the years—and it goes back a long way—is build a trust in an artist so that we can develop ideas collaboratively. Whether I’m talking to the artist directly, which is what I like to do, or the label or managers—there are occasions where I have to say, “It’s not workin’. I really want to have you on the show, but I don’t want to do that.” And then they say, “Then I don’t want to do that.” But we don’t lose people. We ultimately find the middle ground; we find a balance. And I really think that we have crossed that bridge with artists.

And there’s another factor. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think artists believe that there’s more at stake with a Grammy performance, and they know that the other artists who are going to be on the show are gonna feel the same way. However that expresses itself—whether it’s obvious or subtle or intrinsic or extrinsic—I think they push harder to do something really great on our show, because it’s going to have a more lasting effect on their careers. 

So that’s your answer to my question about why the AMAs don’t move the needle?
I can’t tell you why they don’t; I can tell you why we do.

In terms of the process leading up to the announcement of the nominations, from the screening stage to the smaller category groups, do you have any hands-on involvement in that process, or do you stay away from it?

None, absolutely none. We all know that there’s a Nomination Screening Committee. I don’t know who’s in that room; I don’t know what happens in that room; I’ve never asked what happens in that room. I have been surprised sometimes at the results. But honestly, I play the cards I’m dealt, and that’s probably a good thing, because then it becomes very easy for me to have a conversation with an artist who calls and says, “What do you mean, I didn’t get nominated for Album of the Year? That’s crazy. I made the best album of my lifetime.” All I can say is, “Mea culpa, not me.”

 So the suspicion that you and Neil and Jack have subtle influence over the process is erroneous.
Over the process of the nominations? Absolutely erroneous. Over who does the show, that’s a different story.

 If you’d had any influence, you probably would’ve had Justin Timberlake on the show last year, right?
[Laughs.] But no, I really don’t. Honestly, it’s as much a surprise to me when these things are announced as anybody else. That does not mean that over the course of the process that Neil and Jack and I don’t talk about people who’ve expressed interest in being on the show, and in some cases I’ll get to the point of collaborations that I’ve thought about or explored with one act or another. But neither Neil nor Jack nor I are in that room, or those rooms, or have any knowledge of what goes on. Honestly, I don’t even know how it works.

 We frequently refer to you, Neil Portnow and Jack Sussman as the Grammy triumvirate. And I suppose that’s accurate in the sense that the brainstorming that goes on about the actual specifics of the show is discussed among the three of you.
I have lived by the fact that no idea has one author, so there’s no embargo on ideas. But at the end of the day it’s probably more likely that the artist will have the biggest influence on what we do. You can’t make an artist do something that they don’t want to do. I sat here recently with an artist who came in with one thought about what she might want to do on the show if she gets nominated. By the end of the conversation something that I had said had intrigued her to the point of saying, “I want to think about that. That’s really interesting. I never would have thought of that.” So in terms of the creative, it’s a very collaborative process. 

The word “collaboration” could almost be your middle name. When did it occur to you that that was a cool thing to do? What was the first time you hatched that on TV?
It was 1974 or 1975 in Chicago, when I put together Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, who had never met. They had both played with Miles; they both knew of each other, obviously. I was doing a little show called Soundstage, which had no boundaries. I could do anything I wanted to do on that show. The first Soundstage ever was Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, Dr. John, Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Nick Gravenites and Muddy’s band. And I put them together for an hour and thought, “I think this could be an interesting way to make a living and have fun.” I did Dion and Phil Everly. I had them sit at one piano and compose a song that was later released, which was called “The Queen of ’59.” I did Southside Johnny and Jr. Wells together. 

The impetus for Soundstage, honestly, was very pragmatic. We had no money to do any production at all. I did for three years in Chicago, and when I moved out here I’d go back and shoot the other shows. Most of the shows had two artists, so it was logical that if I booked the right two artists, I should get them together. The shows were separated by this middle piece, which was usually the two of them together. With Chick and Herbie I opened it up. And it was their idea, not mine. What could you do with Miles Davis that they both did? “Someday My Prince Will Come.” You can find it on YouTube. It’s pretty brilliant, not because of me, but because you have these two guys that were facing each other on keyboards, so half of it is just the cross-shot of the two of them looking at each other. 

So that’s when it started. Then, on my first Grammy show, I had Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand dueting on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” They’d never done it together. My attorney at this point, Jeff Ingber, was also Neil’s attorney; he worked with David Braun, who was the lead attorney. So when I had this idea to do it, I went to Jeff and Jeff went to David and David went to Neil and Neil said, “She’ll never do it, but I’d love to do it.” I think they made the call to Marty Ehrlichman, and Barbra said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And that was the first kind of… I don’t want to say it was the first Grammy Moment, because that was 1980, and it was too bad that John Lennon and Paul Simon didn’t present together. That would’ve been a Grammy Moment.

That was a beginning for the Grammys. I did two or three things in that show, and then every year that became more and more of what I wanted to do. And truth be told, after the departure of Mike Greene, when Neil came in, I didn’t know Neil at all. Pierre Cossette basically owned the show. He said, “Ken, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of NARAS; you do the show.” So I met Neil. We had lunch at some point after he got the job. We were sitting there, and one of the things he said to me was, “You know those things you do when you put people together? Those are really cool; we ought to do more of those.” With Mike it was not exactly the same kind of relationship, although I’ve always had a reasonable amount of autonomy with the show. With Neil, again, you use the word “collaborative.” 

So he welcomed that, and that opened it up.
Yeah. And the year after that, instead of doing two or three of those, I was doing five or six. And it wasn’t just collaborations. I put a list together of some of my favorite Grammy Moments over the years for this year’s program, and a lot of them aren’t collaborations. P!nk in the air was not a collaboration. Melissa Etheridge and Joss Stone were on stage together, but nobody remembers that. People remember Aretha filling in for Pavarotti. But certainly the collaborations have helped. The joy for me is to create.

This will be your 35th Grammys. How has the show changed during that time?

There’s more pressure to succeed now. In the early days of the show in the ’80s, there were only three television networks. We were always getting a 25 to a 30. When Michael Jackson showed up, we got a 38 share. So, without any difficulty I could say, “Gospel time. Let’s put the Clark Sisters, Shirley Caesar and James Cleveland together on stage and do seven minutes of a gospel number.” I thought, people were gonna love it; the world will love this; this is as good as Whitney Houston singing.”

So I think in those days we could be freer with what we did. It wasn’t looking at minute-by-minute; we weren’t looking at the day or two or a week after the show looking to see where it spiked and didn’t spike. But I don’t ever lose sight of keeping an audience, but I do think that there still need to be these places where you can introduce an audience to something that they’ve never seen before and not lose them. If anything, you can entice them; you can leave them with their jaws dropping because they are seeing something great and unexpected. Nobody knew who Mumford & Sons were when they performed with Bob Dylan. So if I can combine those things, then I think we’ve done our job. 

Technically it’s changed in a huge respect, because the technology, which was supposed to make things easier to do, has really made them more difficult. But on the other hand, we’re able to do things that I could never do 15 years ago. I’m not talking about the digital universe, which obviously has also had an impact on the show. 

The VMAs were at the Forum this year. Irving’s a good arm-twister. Was there any engagement with you guys on that possibility?
I’ve known Irving for probably 30 years. I love Irving. I would not want to not be loved by Irving. But we’re very happy at Staples; AEG is very good to us, and we know the building inside and out; it’s comfortable for us. Doesn’t mean you don’t try new things, or that we wouldn’t entertain that in the future, but I can’t say enough about Staples and how they treat us and what they do for us. 

It seems to me that your own taste isn’t relegated to the backseat in this process. You seem like a guy who says, “I love this, and I expect that other people will too.” If you did it any less subjectively than that, I suspect you’d probably lose a certain level of inspiration or vitality. It’s your show.
It’s not my show, and that’s what keeps it kind of level. And I can answer that question and come off incredibly arrogant, which I don’t want to be. But what I do believe is that you need to have a point of view about any of these shows, and I think where you get into trouble is, these shows can’t be done by committee, nor can they be done by looking at the charts. It’s not a science.

I had a tough time pushing the P!nk “Glitter in the Air” number, though I had seen it and I knew what it was. But it was not a popular choice. Basically, all I said was, “Trust me. People are going to be talking about this for 10 years.” And six or seven years later, they still are—it was just an amazing performance. And I do believe that in our own way we each do bring some subjective judgment to the show. I think we are able to go a little farther afield than the other shows. We take more chances. Maybe not more chances than MTV with the VMAs. They used to be remarkable. There were things on that show that I could never do on our show. 

But you need to have a playing field. Last year is a perfect example. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis—I pushed that agenda. I thought “Same Love” was a really great song, and I loved what it said. And I knew it was going to get nominated, although everybody else said “Thrift Shop.” And then they did “Thrift Shop” on three other shows. So I was talking to my daughter Dory. My daughter’s gay; she lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. I told her I was going to this lunch meeting with these guys. I knew the album, I liked the album and I liked their story—independent, Warner Bros.-distributed, but they never talk to Warner Bros. It was just enough counterculture for a guy from the ’60s to really get into. So Dory said, “I haven’t been to one of their shows, but people have told me that they are a lot of same-sex couples that get engaged at their shows.” So all I did was just amplify that, and we sat down with them across the chicken, and I said to them, “I think you’re gonna wind up being on the show. We should talk about what you want to do.” I always lay in wait till they say, “I don’t know; what do you think?” Because you always want it to be their idea. We were talking about “Thrift Shop,” and I said I would love to have them on the nomination show doing “Thrift Shop,” but I think we should do “Same Love” on the Grammys. And I think it surprised them. So I said to them, “I’m really thinking about doing multiple marriages on stage to that song, and I wonder how you feel about it.” Well, these two guys looked at each other, and I think they couldn’t believe that a TV producer was saying, “We’re gonna have gay couples getting married on an awards show on television.” And they just embraced it. 

My point is, yes, it was my idea—it was really my daughter’s idea—and once I had them on board, I called Neil and I said, “Look, it’s not right for me to push my agenda to your organization. But on the other hand, your organization by definition is inclusive, and you’ll probably have more people that believe in same-sex marriage than don’t.” And then I called Jack and said, “How is Les Moonves going to feel about this?” And for 24 hours or more I was on tenterhooks. Then they both called and said, “We’re behind this. Go for it.” 

I was so proud of us doing that. And I was so proud that my daughter…that we made that statement. And it was definitely a statement. And then all of a sudden, it grew. It grew to Madonna, Queen Latifah, Mary Lambert and Trombone Shorty. Then we hired a consultant to book the couples. It wound up being 33 couples, and slightly over half of them were same-sex. I wanted it to be universal. 

So that’s another kind of manifestation of being subjective, but it’s bigger than that. And would that have happened on another show? I don’t know. But the freedom we have to represent music in more than just music and lyrics is another aspect of the show that becomes part and parcel of what we do every year in a lot of ways.

You’ve made a list of your favorite moments. Do you have any particular disappointments? You knew that was coming.
I was not proud of what we did with Nicki Minaj three years ago. I thought that was a disappointment both in terms of what we did and to an extent what she did. I’m not going to absolve us of any responsibility, but it just wasn’t good. If it had been controversial and good, I think I would have been proud of it. But we probably let out the string a little too much on that one. We did a thing I don’t know how many years ago called “Britney’s Incredible Dream” when Britney was the biggest thing in the business. I thought I had to book her. We did this thing where it opened up with her in a bed as a little girl. Then she did—I don’t remember what song it was—“Baby One More Time.” I thought that was a mistake. But there are a lot of ’em in the middle, and there are dozens near the top. But when someone asks me that question, those are the two that come immediately to mind.

Being a West Coast publication, we’re always wishing the show was live on the West Coast.
That’s always going to be a network decision, probably in concert with the Academy. I will at least be consulted for my opinion, but probably not listened to. But I really do believe that three-hour jump from the East Coast to the West Coast is huge. Because now I see it, because I watch the blogs on other shows that are delayed, and my appetite is now whetted. So I think there’s an upside and a downside. My problem in terms of promoting this show has always been that nobody ever sees these moments until they actually happen on the air. We don’t release them ahead of time. So the first time they see P!nk in the air is on the show. I don’t know that that’s enough to keep it the way it is, but I know that it really makes a difference. 

What else have you got planned for this year?
The Beatles show was so successful last year, and we’re going to do another show two nights after the Grammys, Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life. I’m excited about that. I love New Orleans, and we go to Jazz Fest every year, and we’re gonna shoot it two weekends in April and May. A couple of months ago we did this global poverty project from Central Park, which I think we’re going to do again next year. It was a one-hour NBC show and a six-hour cable show on MSNBC. It was Beyoncé and Jay, No Doubt, Alicia Keys; there were about six or seven acts. It was fun to do, so we’re gonna do that again. 

I’m hoping to do a Julio Iglesias special in the spring. When he was 19 he was in a fatal car accident where a couple of people were killed, and he wound up in the hospital for over a year. His father, who was a surgeon in Madrid, moved into the hospital and said, “We’re not leaving here until we can walk out together.” He was paralyzed from here down; he had the use of his arm. A nurse came in one day and brought him a guitar, and flat on his back, he learned how to sing and play, and became an international star. And he is mildly handicapped to this day from that accident, which he’s always kind of hidden from people. I have now met with him two or three times, and at 72 years old it’s time for him to accept it and celebrate it and use that as an example to other people as to what you can overcome. And I think I have a great show with a couple of significant guests. 

So it’s a pretty full plate. And I just have a great group of people, and we really enjoy what we do. Ron Basili has been my line producer for 27 years, Paige Hadley has been with us since 1994, for Chantal Sositos it’s 15. I have a record player in my office, and I’ll pull out some vinyl and play things for them, because I’m 20 or 30 older than they are. I’ll play them Otis Williams and the Charms, “That’s Your Mistake,” or Elvin Bishop, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” or an obscure Van Morrison cut, and they’ll go, “Oh, my God, that’s what music was like.” 

I don’t like people who talk about how hard they work, how difficult it is and blah-blah-blah. It’s not easy, but music is such an important part of our lives, and I just feel so lucky to still be able to make a living from being involved in it. It’s not a cliché. There’s no way we’re gonna stand up in front of people ourselves, but at the very least we can support it, and we can put our little stamp on it.

Final thoughts?
I have two lines that have become my lines of the show this year. One is, when people say, “How are ya?” I usually say, “I’m better today than I’m gonna be tomorrow”—which is really a terrible thing to say, but it is kind of apt. The other thing is, “I don’t have a problem talking about myself—I know a lot about the subject.” Ask me about quantum mechanics, we have a problem, but I know about me, and I know this show. And on a scale of one to 10 as to where this show is right now—without ever having walked into Staples Center—right now I think it’s at least a 7.5 or an 8, and that’s only because from there it goes to a 10 on stage, and sometimes goes to an 11 or 12. But the bones are there, so we’ll see.

 

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