HITS Daily Double


Departing Grammys EP Gives His First Post-Show Interview

The day after executive producing the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, Ken Ehrlich was back in production on the Recording Academy’s tribute to Prince, which will tape Tuesday. He reflected on his Grammy swan song, giving us details on reworking the show after the Kobe Bryant news, dealing with the Academy and why he chose a song from Fame for his finale.

Regardless of the performances, production-wise, the show was visually interesting from start to finish, whether it was Lil Nas X, Lizzo, “I Sing the Body Electric” or the Nipsey Hussle tribute.
I was really pleased. A lot of people, probably more out of politeness, courtesy or whatever, are calling out the finale number. But part of me blanches at that, because it's the whole show that really resonates.

How did you come to select “I Sing the Body Electric” from Fame as a way to honor your 40 years of producing the show?
I produced Fame [on TV] for three years. I always loved the movie, and I think Alan Parker is a genius director. I also always loved that number, and at times over the past 40 years, not just on the Grammys, it really inspired me.

It has four or five genres that I love—gospel, pop, rock, classical—and then, of course, the music-and-the-schools aspect, mixing professional artists with kids. We used the same arrangement that they did for the movie, and all I did basically was think about who I could replace the original cast members with.

It was a song Camila [Cabello] had never heard, but she got it. Cyndi [Lauper] was the perfect person for that second verse, and Ben Platt would bring the next couple of verses home. Then, when it begins to get gospel, The War and Treaty come in, and then Joshua Bell and Lang Lang. I can't think of a better fiddle player than Joshua Bell playing against Gary Clark Jr. If this was 1978, you’d say it’s not that far away from Rick Wakeman or Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Like you say, it covered a lot of stylistic ground and it brought together artists who otherwise wouldn’t perform together, which is your trademark.
I knew that number was going to be great, but I want people to look beyond that. All I wanted to do [Sunday] night was return the focus of the music community—and, I hope, millions of people watching—to what the show is all about, which is celebrating music.

It’s not that I'm not interested in the future of the Academy, but honestly it was just more important to me to make a show that the artists would be proud of.

You obviously had a tough task, having to come up with a way to honor Kobe Bryant? Could you walk me through that process?
We were in the dress [rehearsal], and somebody pushed an iPhone in front of my face that said Kobe Bryant was killed. We started talking about what we could do; what happened with Whitney [Houston] came into play a little—we couldn't let the news hijack the show, but, come on, we’re in Staples Center. We had to do something, especially because his relationship with the music community was really strong—artists loved him. Right after the dress, which ended about 2:45pm, I took Alicia aside to a little cove underneath the stage and [told her the news]. She didn't cry, but she was obviously shaken.

"I said to Alicia, 'We've known each other for 17 or 18 years, but we never really knew each other until now.' Part of it was Kobe, some of it was what was going on with the Academy. That helped get us together."

[Writer] David Wild and [Executive Producer] Ben Winston were really helpful, and we basically laid out a couple of scenarios, both of which were good. Basically, we made the first act Lizzo, Kobe, Gwen and Blake, and then basically restarting a show with the song [Keys performed]. Basically, we just turned act one into act two.

There were other Kobe elements—the jersey in the Lil Nas X opening, the portrait alongside Nipsey Hussle, the jersey being held up during Aerosmith/Run-D.M.C.
A couple of those things happened on their own. I asked, "If anybody wants to wear Kobe swag, do you have any that we can use?" And they said, "Of course."

Considering everything you were throwing at Alicia Keys, she was a calm presence. It’s her second year of being host. Can you talk about her importance to the show?
It's analogous, really, to LL Cool J, whose first year was the Whitney year. Their instincts were just right, because they knew themselves better than we could ever possibly know them. That led to the perfect tone. I've known Alicia since she was a kid, and we've worked together any number of times. I said to her, "We've known each other for 17 or 18 years, but we never really knew each other until now." Part of it was Kobe, some of it was what was going on with the Academy. That helped get us together.

What was the effect of the Academy disruption in terms of planning the show?
Nothing. At the end of the day, all I needed to keep thinking about was the show—that's what I had to do. I think I may have said it a couple times with my team—which is very large and very loyal and very good at what they do—"You're going to be hearing things and there probably will be some criticism aimed at the show itself. But we're doing a show; you're where our focus needs to be. Let's not be distracted."

Knowing it was your final Grammys, was there anything you did that you hadn’t before?
No. Maybe one of the things that has kept me alive for all these years is I don't consciously want to repeat myself with anything on the show other than the fact that people are going to walk on a stage and sing. It's never the same. It’s kind of dependent upon what gets nominated, what the music is like.

There were a lot of heavy ballads this year.
It was a bit more introspective musically, maybe one or two more than we usually do. When you think about Camila with her father, when you think about Billie [Eilish], when you think about Demi [Lovato], Tanya [Tucker] and Brandi [Carlile]—opportunities present themselves and you want to do it.

It was paced incredibly well. Look at a rundown of the show. In the first 30 minutes, I wanted to build an audience, and I needed Blake [Shelton] and Gwen [Stefani] up early. I needed Tyler, the Creator for a hip-hop number that people would get into and love. I had Lizzo. I knew then I could let it out a little bit, and not have to depend on what the biggest hits were.

To get that pacing right, did it require a lot of different running orders?
I can't remember how I built this show other than the one thing that one of the script people said last night. I had sent her a rundown in December before the show was fully booked, before I knew what some of the people were doing. I maybe had 10 or 11 acts booked out of 20. We came back in January and put in the things I had forgotten. And then I start putting them in: I knew Tyler, the Creator should come in about 40 minutes after the show starts. I knew that Ariana [Grande] should be at 75-80 minutes into the show. And the grid gets filled in on a piece of legal paper. [The script person] said to my daughter that about 80% of the structure of the show in order didn't change.

Knowing how much you love blues and the music of New Orleans, it was a superb Ehrlich touch putting Trombone Shorty with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
When we started building the "In Memoriam" package, I knew that I was going to end it with Dave Bartholomew, Art Neville and Dr. John. So when that was a given, it was pretty logical to think, OK, let's do a jazz funeral.