November 24, 2015
This year's 58th Annual Grammy Awards will mark Cleveland native Ken Ehrlich's 36th year executive-producing the show. The man, credited with creating the ceremony's durable "Magic Moments" concept, last year was honored with a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame. The veteran got his start in Chicago creating the PBS music show, Soundstage, before being lured to Hollywood by a job on the Tony Orlando and Dawn TV show, where he distinguished himself by booking Frank Zappa as a musical guest. That rather short-lived experience led to Pierre Cossette bringing him aboard to work on the Grammy Awards in 1980, and he's been there ever since.
With a busy schedule that had him racing across L.A. from one meeting to the next, Ehrlich still managed to take time to talk to All Access Senior News Editor Roy Trakin. His latest project is Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America, which taped on November 18th at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. and aired worldwide on the entire array of A+E Networks on November 20th, featuring an all-star cast including Bruce Springsteen, Pharrell Williams, Sting, John Legend, Ed Sheeran, Sia and the Zac Brown Band, among many others. Ehrlich segues directly from that to Sinatra 100 - An All-Star Grammy Concert, with Garth Brooks, Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Tony Bennett, Carrie Underwood, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Adam Levine and Usher, which is taping in Las Vegas on December 2th for airing December 6th on CBS, with the Grammy nominations being announced the following day, December 7th, at which point Ehrlich really goes into overdrive.
Who had the original idea for doing a concert like this?
About two months ago, I got a call from A+E, saying they wanted to do a music show on the state of race relations in America, a concert that harkened back to the civil rights days when Peter, Paul & Mary would sing, "If I Had a Hammer." That was a natural for me, having been an activist myself. I planned to get all these contemporary performers to sing some of those protest songs, which would point up the roots of where this all came from. A+E liked that idea, but I had individual meetings with John Legend, Pharrell Williams and Alicia Keys. And all three told me separately, they'd love to be involved, but they didn't want to do a "Kumbaya" show ... sitting around the campfire and singing songs about how we are all one. They wanted this event to convey a message and be relevant. Not that what those shows did wasn't appropriate, but we just live in a different age. Today, there are so many more vehicles for artists to express themselves. The reality is, these performers feel more enfranchised to say what they feel.
One of the criticisms is that the modern-day music performers have shirked their duties in tackling controversial issues in comparison the '60s.
I don't agree. If anyone should feel that way, it would be me. Honestly, it's our generation looking at this younger one and saying it doesn't measure up to our accomplishments. I see the African-American community and the hip-hop world - look at what some of these artists are writing and saying. Look at Kendrick Lamar ... They're putting it right out there. And what about the Americana music artists? We might not have No Nukes or the Concert for Bangladesh, but we do have artists who put their money where their mouth is.
So I went back to A+E and carried that message. If we want to do a show that matters, they must listen to what these performers are telling us. They're willing to commit themselves, if it's something they feel invested in. To his credit, A+E VP/GM Robert Sharenow agreed to do it responsibly and in the right way, which gave me the impetus to begin to build a show that is definitely more than just "Kumbaya." The point is, because of Pharrell, John and Alicia, it was obvious we had to go out into the community - to Charleston, Ferguson and Baltimore. And the artists were more than willing to go there and speak to people ... not just victims, but those who represent various sides, and see if we could get a meaningful dialogue going. We've been to all three of those places, and it's going to be really thought-provoking. And that's what we want ... people to think.
During one of our discussions, Pharrell wondered if A+E was the network that carried Duck Dynasty. When he found out it was, he said, "Those are the people we need to reach." We didn't want to just preach to the choir. We need to reach the people who don't have a like-minded feeling about a lot of this stuff. That's why we did these pieces. We worked with a great news producer, Jeanmarie Condon, from Lincoln Square Productions, which, along with A+E, is owned by Disney-ABC. They partnered with us to create these pieces, which are going to run between the musical performances, then afterwards, will be followed by a one-hour special, Shining a Light: Conversations on Race in America.
What was the experience working on this like for you?
Bruce Springsteen wrote "(American Skin) 41 Shots" almost 15 years ago, and I've never done that song with him, but I've always wanted to. To be able to do that on this show - which is appropriate - and to really feel how important this is to him as well, means a great deal to me. We're all of a similar generation. And here we are on a show where Ed Sheeran is going to do "People Get Ready;" Tori Kelly and Miguel doing En Vogue's "Free Your Mind"... And, of course, Pharrell will perform "Freedom." The music is appropriate.
And after this, you're moving straight into the Frank Sinatra 100th birthday tribute show.
I loved Sinatra. Growing up, I would come downstairs after playing Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers in my bedroom to listen to Songs for Swingin' Lovers and Songs for Young Lovers on my parents' hi-fi. And I loved both of them. I really got to know that music; I could hear the difference between the Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins arrangements. Sometimes I'd listen to them without Sinatra and other times, I'd hear the beautiful melding of them together.
Doing this show, I was like a kid in a candy store, laying out these songs you really wanted to hear other people sing. And we have some live recordings of Frank himself singing to a live orchestra. He was incredibly iconic. There aren't too many men during that generation who didn't wish they were Frank.
Did you ever see Sinatra in concert or meet him?
Once, while I was living in Chicago, I saw him do a show in the early-to-mid-'70s at Chicago Stadium with Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. Then, I met him in 1994 during that ill-fated Grammy Legend Award acceptance speech, where we inadvertently cut him off. Bono did this incredible introduction, which Frank loved. And then we were asked to cut him off by someone in the truck who will remain nameless when he began wandering a bit. It was only four years before his death in 1998. There were subsequent critical on-air comments made by Garry Shandling and then Billy Joel about it I will never forget, that upset me. We certainly didn't cut Frank Sinatra off because of time constraints. They were just trying to be funny.
You must be starting to think of what's in store for the Grammys at this point.
I have, but we can't begin specific discussions until the nominations. There are some that are obvious. I will start conversations with some of them early, but officially, I can't make an offer until then. We have started planning several of the special segments that we have every year that don't involve nominees, like the opening number by AC/DC last year. Usually, there are two or three of those performances I will get started on early.
Any thoughts on "Magic Moments" for this year's ceremony?
Yes, but right now, they're locked in the offices of Deloitte Touche. They're tabulating the ballots right now. I always put together a little list of those I hope will be nominated; some are and some aren't. A few years ago, that list included Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, only one of whom got nominated, but both ended up on the show in that Bob Dylan segment because it felt right.
So you have no idea who the nominees are beforehand until, like we all do, they're announced that night?
No, I don't. That's the reality, and we've been doing it the same way for a long time.