Ken Ehrlich Takes Us Behind The Scenes Of The Grammys’ Greatest Moments
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS – Ken Ehrlich
Ken Ehrlich catches up with Chance the Rapper in the controlled chaos backstage of the 2017 Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
With the Grammy Awards looming, a rite of the season is to speak with Ken Ehrlich, the show’s producer of some 39 years running, about what he fondly calls “Grammy Moments” – the performances that transcend the platform of television to become part of the cultural zeitgeist.
And then there was the “Soy Bomb” guy who crashed Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammy appearance, and entered the zeitgeist in another way. While Ehrlich acknowledges it made Grammy history – and ushered in a new age of backstage security in the pre-9/11 world – it can’t overshadow legendary moments like Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Nessun dorma” standing in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti.
It always comes up on “best-of” lists, and deservedly so. But for Ehrlich, perhaps more memorable were the butterflies in his stomach as he realized he had to approach the late Queen of Soul on her own turf to ask a last-minute favor.
“Just the idea of walking up to her – she was seated upstairs at Radio City Music Hall – and asking, ‘How would you like to sing twice tonight?’ was audacious at the least and foolhardy at the most,” Ehrlich tells Pollstar. “Aretha didn’t suffer fools. But she just rose to it.”
One thing you notice when speaking to Ehrlich: he refers to a lot of the biggest talent of the last half-century by first name, like they’re old friends. And they are – his mental Rolodex of relationships has to be staggering when he can call on anyone from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau to Beyoncé’s mom on a moment’s notice.
Like he did in the run-up to the 2012 Grammy Awards after he asked McCartney not only to perform during the show, but if he’d like to lead a finale. McCartney was happy to do it, Ehrlich says, but he suggested “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five,” a deep cut from 1973’s Band On The Run. Fortunately, after sleeping on the idea, McCartney told Ehrlich he’d had a change of heart and wanted to perform the final three songs from Abbey Road‘s second-side suite instead.
Christopher Polk/WireImage – Bruce Springsteen
Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Walsh backstage at the 2012 Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles
McCartney gathered a couple friends – Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh – and, during a rehearsal two days before the show, Ehrlich says he overheard Macca tell his guitarist, Rusty Anderson, “It would be great if Bruce [Springsteen] would do this.”
Of course, that was Ehrlich’s cue. “I called Jon Landau, who is Bruce’s manager, and said ‘I’m standing here on stage and Paul just mentioned it would be great if Bruce would want to come and play this little guitar solo in this 16-bar break.’ We already had three people and there was this one break left. And Jon said ‘I’ll ask him.’
“I’m still on stage, they’re still rehearsing, and Jon calls back and Bruce supposedly said to Jon, ‘We’re talking about Paul McCartney, the Beatle, right?’ And Jon laughed and said, ‘Yes.’ And Bruce said, ‘Well, tell him yes, of course I’d do that.’ The only time they rehearsed it was the dress rehearsal.”
Prior to 2004, when Beyoncé was nominated for Album of the Year for her solo debut, Desperately In Love, Ehrlich didn’t permit artists to perform more than once during the Grammy Awards telecast. That changed when he had the chance to put her together with Prince. But the superstar was reluctant.
Ehrlich had reached out to Prince for years to perform on the Grammy Awards show, but was usually told no. This time, the Purple One would agree but had one request: “Do you think you could get Beyoncé to do something with me?” Problem was, Beyoncé had other ideas she didn’t want to distract from. But Ehrlich knew one doesn’t say no to Prince.
Photo by Michael Caulfield/WireImage – Prince Beyonce
Prince and Beyonce break the rules at the 2004 Grammys at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“She had this number that she’d conceived with this big, elaborate frame and she’d created this tableau of women that went inside this and it was a beautiful look,” Ehrlich explained. “Before this, I’d never allowed anyone to do more than one performance on a show. I said, ‘You can do that, but I need you to do this with Prince, also. You have to.’”
Beyoncé’s mom, Tina Knowles, was in the dressing room while her daughter rehearsed. In between the singer’s costume changes, Ehrlich worked on the elder Knowles. “Between the two of us, I think we talked her into doing it. And, of course, it was just this iconic performance, it was amazing,” Ehrlich remembers. “Prince laid out the whole thing. He was here in L.A. and did this in two or three days. It went on to become a signature for us and for the two of them.
“Not that many years later, I get a call from Tina Turner to do exactly the same thing, and I said ‘absolutely.’ That was another stunning number, for sure.”
Many of Ehrlich’s Grammy memories include women. There’s Barbra Streisand, anxiously watching Neil Diamond fall asleep on a green room bench before performing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” for the first time together at the 1980 Grammys; it was the first show he produced. Another is Pink’s “Glitter in the Air” performance, the first time the Los Angeles Fire Department allowed an aerial performance during a televised awards show. Yet another high-water mark for Ehrlich is Mary J. Blige’s Grammy performance in 2002 of “No More Drama,” about as packed with emotion and personal catharsis as any moment on the Grammy stage.
Ron Galella/WireImage – Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand
Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand hadn’t sung “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” together before they did it for the Grammys.
Then there was the year Melissa Etheridge came on the show after battling cancer. “I‘d worked with her a number of times over the years but this was to be her first appearance after chemo and radiation,” Ehrlich says. “She was bald. I knew she was bald because she came to my office and asked if I was O.K. with that. I said, ‘I want you in all your glory.’”
Ehrlich had come up with a plausible reason to give Etheridge a performance slot because she had no nominations in 2005. He put her together with British singer Joss Stone in a tribute to Janis Joplin. And they both just slayed it.
“There’s a note that [Etheridge] reaches at one point that is the note of all notes and you know when she reaches that one note,” Ehrlich says. “She screams; you know she is back and her life is going to go on.”
M. Caulfield/WireImage for The Recording Academy – Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge channels Janis Jopin in a life affirming performance at the Grammy Awards.
Of course, there are the obvious Grammy standouts, like Michael Jackson’s 1988 performance of “Man in the Mirror” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” at Radio City Music Hall. By this time, MJ was the reigning King of Pop and had proven his live performance chops. But his preparation was anything but perfunctory, Ehrlich says.
The night before the Grammy Awards, Jackson requested a copy of his rehearsal video from the night before, but he wanted Ehrlich to personally deliver it to his suite at the Helmsley Palace hotel – even though the producer had been up all day and half the night overseeing dress rehearsals for Music’s Biggest Night. But when Michael Jackson calls, you report for duty.
Larry Busacca/WireImage – Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson at the Grammy Awards, Radio City Music Hall in NYC, 1988.
“When we walked in, he was standing in front of this floor-to-ceiling window with Manhattan framed in it, and the snow coming down in back of him with the night lights, and he was standing there on a piece of linoleum Marley flooring, which is what he would dance on,” Ehrlich describes. “He was working on his steps for this number. He had a boom box and he was playing the songs back and rehearsing.”
Eventually, Ehrlich and choreographer Vince Patterson – the only others in the sprawling suite besides Jackson – prepared to leave. Jackson whispered something to Patterson and Ehrlich asked about it. As it turned out, Jackson kept with him a carved wooden replica of a microphone that he practiced with. “It looked like a toy, or a hair brush,” Ehrlich says.
“Vince said Michael wanted to be sure to have that wooden mic. It was because he will stand there in front of that mirror, on the biggest night of his life, and work for four or five hours by himself, with nobody in the room except himself and that track. And I thought, ‘What a life.’”