With this Sunday’s Grammy ceremony to be his last after 40 years of producing it, Ken Ehrlich could be excused for creating a few moments in the show to look back on his own legacy, which includes creating indelible moments that will live in pop consciousness forever: Aretha Franklin singing “Nessun dorma,” Beyoncé shaking and shimmying alongside Prince, and Eminem and Elton John performing together.
But that’s not how Ehrlich wanted to bow out, with the focus on himself. So, once again, he’s creating what he hopes will be a magical moment with an amalgam of performers: John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Joshua Bell, Gary Clark Jr., Lang Lang, Common, Jack Antonoff and the New Orleans band War and Treaty, singing the classic song from the 1980 movie “Fame”: “I Sing The Body Electric.”
“It’s the standard of maybe one of the best pieces of film music that I’ve ever seen,” says Ehrlich of the song, which was originally sung by the film’s stars, including Grammy winner Irene Cara.
The performance, which will also include a dance by Misty Copeland, will be among the last of the evening as Ehrlich says his goodbye.
“It’s kind of been around in my head over the years, but it really didn’t come into play until I started thinking about what I did want to do this year,” he told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “It was pretty plain to me that, you know, rather than to put together a montage of great Grammy moments, which everybody has seen now a lot of times … that this was a fresh way of doing something that really represented what I’ve tried to do with the Grammys. And it’s consistent with what the mission of the academy is with regard to music education and music of the schools.”
The performance will also feature local student musicians, singers and dancers, including those from Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy. Ehrlich and Allen both worked on the TV show version of “Fame.” Allen is also choreographing the number.
“This song is consistent with everything I’ve tried to do on a show for 40 years, blending genres, blending generations, showing that, you know, the cliche is music is the universal language, but the execution is you know, we all live together in this world where music makes us laugh, it makes us cry and all the rest of it,” he said.
Ehrlich says the performers he picked represent a cross section of genres, but also generations, and reflects the kind of diversity he has strived for over the years.
“I think she (Camila) represents the newest generation. Cyndi Lauper, we go back to the ’80s. … She’s a brilliant artist,” he said. “John Legend. I don’t mean to demean him by saying this, but man, is he Mr. Dependable … I love what he could do. I love that voice.”
Ehrlich is known for mixing disparate artists together to make Grammy moments: The John-Eminem moment in 2001 came as the rapper was under fierce criticism for homophobic statements in his music.
He paired classical pianist Lang Lang with Metallica, Stevie Wonder with Daft Punk and Pharrell and countless other collaborations that made for watercooler moments — and now viral moments — for days afterward.
“Ken Ehrlich’s musical knowledge, vision and passion has mirrored the legendary work of the iconic artists he’s created timeless moments with on the Grammys stage over the years,” said Harvey Mason Jr., the Recording Academy’s chair of the board of trustees and interim president/CEO, in a statement. “As we approach his farewell Grammys production, we salute his contributions to our music community and global pop culture, and eagerly anticipate what is sure to be a remarkable last hurrah.”
Ehrlich, who has produced the Emmys as well as a multitude of other specials and performances, including White House performances during Barack Obama’s presidency, is known for packing the show with A-list performers year after year. His name came up in this week’s Grammy lawsuit drama, as Deborah Dugan, the Recording Academy’s ousted president and CEO, claimed that nominations were sometimes manipulated based on whom Ehrlich wanted to have on the show.
Ehrlich did not answer a message seeking a response to Dugan’s allegations. But in his interview with the AP, he talked about being rebuffed by one superstar for his swan song performance: Ed Sheeran, who was nominated for just one Grammy, best pop vocal album for his “No. 6 Collaborations Projects,” despite a chart-topping year.
“I wanted Ed to do this. I just really wanted him. But, you know, this was not a year when the Grammys shone brightly on Ed and he declined,” Ehrlich said. “I love him and I wish he would have come and done this.”
As he closes out his Grammy tenure, Ehrlich has been asked about some of the show’s most famous moments, such as Franklin stepping in with little notice for an ill Luciano Pavarotti to sing “Nessun dorma” flawlessly, or the times Beyoncé performed with icons Prince in 2004 and Tina Turner four years later.
Ehrlich is aware of the impact the show has had, not only on the careers of those who have been part of those moments, but also on other shows, which have copied his approach. He remains irked that the show has never won an Emmy, but he’s proud of the mark he’s made, and the legacy he is leaving behind.
And while he knows the next producer will have their own vision, he’s hopeful that the emphasis on performance will remain.
“There’s a large cross section of our audience that tunes into the show because they think they’re going to see something they haven’t seen somewhere else. And that’s what I hope continues,” he said. “There are not a lot of surprises left in life. … And I would like to think that our show, occasionally anyway, does our best to surprise the people who are sitting at home watching.”
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