There’s kinetic energy onstage at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre for rehearsals of the opening number of “The Grammy Nominations Concert Live!!”: three dancers with shopping carts, a half-dozen horn players amid racks of mismatched clothing, a couple of drummers, a choreographer, and several technicians fine-tuning audio and lights.
But one body, positioned front and center facing the stage, stands still, watching while Macklemore and singer Wanz tear into “Thrift Shop,” the No. 1 song on the 2013 year-end Billboard Hot 100. The track finishes and that motionless figure, Ken Ehrlich, finally stirs, huddling with the Seattle rapper and a few others involved in the staging. Another new run-through starts -- this time outside in the L.A. Live plaza. Macklemore, producer Ryan Lewis, Wanz and a trumpeter begin there, then bound down the stage-right aisle, performing a song that would receive two Grammy nominations 32 hours later.
“I knew we could have fun with that,” Ehrlich says of the performance. “I don’t have a vote and I don’t know ahead of time who is nominated, but my intuition said that was the more resonant of their three hits, and production-wise it could be the most fun.”
Ehrlich follows several paces behind the performers, stopping midway at the producers table to watch the TV monitor, with CBS executive VP of specials and events Jack Sussman at his side and Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow and show co-producer Terry Lickona looking over their shoulders. Portnow and Lickona applaud the performance as Ehrlich heads back to the stage to tweak things yet again.
Involved in the Grammys since 1984 -- and executive producer since 2005 -- Ehrlich was again overseeing the nominations show, as he has since it debuted five years ago. “The Grammy Nominations Concert Live!!” has settled into a formula of mixing the old, the new and the biggest, this year bringing together “Thrift Shop,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Lorde’s “Royals,” another Hot 100 No. 1, on the same bill.
The day after the nominations show, Ehrlich, Portnow, Sussman and their teams began figuring out how the 56th Grammys will look. Unlike most years, though, a multitude of variables forced Ehrlich to start early.
“Normally I don’t book anybody until the nominations come out -- it’s something of an unwritten rule,” he says. “But I made it very clear to the Academy this year: I have to talk to people we are reasonably sure will be nominated early. Whether I trigger [a request] or not is another story. It’s kind of unprecedented. I’ve had to couch [requests] with ‘Look, guys, we’re talking now -- but you’ll get a call on Dec. 7 to say if it’s a go.’”
The calendar isn’t being kind to the Grammys this year. The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, begin Feb. 7, five days after the Super Bowl, pushing the Grammys to Jan. 26 -- 16 days earlier than the 2013 show. Add to that Christmas and New Year’s Day both falling on Wednesdays, which tends to extend the entertainment industry’s holiday break to three weeks instead of two, as acts, agents and managers start clocking out the week of Dec. 16. On top of that, the nominations were revealed Dec. 6, later than at any time in the last six years. “From the ninth to the 16th, I have that one week to get everything rolling,” Ehrlich says.
Further complicating booking is “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,” a CBS special marking the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that will be shot the day after the Grammys. Ehrlich hired Academy of Country Music Awards executive producer R.A. Clark to help produce and Don Was as musical director for the special, which will be shot in the same Convention Center space where MusiCares, which this year honors Carole King, will be held three days earlier.
Space will be at a premium between the Convention Center and Staples Center, just steps away. Rehearsals for some acts on the Beatles show will be held in a backstage space at the Staples Center Jan. 23-25 while the Grammy show is rehearsed. The Convention Center will be set up for a gala for MusiCares and a general-admission concert hall for the Beatles show. During the pre-telecast across the street at the Nokia, the prime-time Grammys show will be in dress rehearsal while other acts are practicing their Beatles tributes.
Speaking right before Thanksgiving, Ehrlich says “The Night That Changed America” will have about a dozen performances, six of which he had “pretty much booked.” Expect to see artist combinations that normally wouldn’t share a stage; the Beatles’ three performances from their “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance on Feb. 9, 1964; and, Ehrlich says, “people who were alive at the time talking about what that night meant to them and artists who weren’t talking about the Beatles. If the younger generation has a greater understanding of the impact they had then, I will be a happy man.”
Cirque du Soleil performers from the “Beatles Love” show in Las Vegas will be on hand, and Ehrlich hopes to incorporate New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater in the show, most likely with current occupant David Letterman.
“I’ve been booking that very slowly because there are a couple of plum acts that I would love to have, but I know if I call them [before the nominations] they would say, ‘What about the Grammys?’ Well, I can’t talk to them about the Grammys.”
The Beatles show is part of a deal the Academy and CBS struck in 2011 to expand Grammy-related programming to include at least one special per year. CBS is counting on the media to start the conversation about the Beatles’ anniversary in late January, and the milestone will likely be incorporated into the Grammys.
“This is a moment in pop culture history, and people will be talking about it,” CBS’ Sussman says. “The real promotional oomph [for the Beatles show] is going to explode come Grammy night. We take off from there to get word out about what the show is and who’s on it.”
Ehrlich has become synonymous with the Grammy telecast, which has had an audience of more than 25 million viewers in each of the last four years, according to Nielsen, hitting a high of 39 million after the death of Whitney Houston in 2012. It’s the show’s best four-year stretch since 1998 through 2001, when viewership levels were between 24.8 million and 26.7 million. A few years ago, the Grammys lost to “American Idol” in a head-to-head matchup. Now it’s one of the most consistently highly rated specials of the year.
“Our job is to maintain integrity of the Grammy brand and make sure that, as a TV event, it changes every year,” Sussman says of his work with Ehrlich.
An avid music fan who filled a recent conversation with praise for Gary Clark Jr., Jackson Browne, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Emeli Sandé, Ehrlich fell into TV producing as a side job in the ’60s. He was doing publicity for a radio station in Chicago when DJ/TV personality Marty Faye asked if he would be interested in working on his weekly Saturday-night variety show on WCIU, which was heavy on jazz and pop performers. The moonlighting gig led to him creating the PBS music program “Made in Chicago” in 1972, which eventually became the legendary “Soundstage” that would present such artists as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, Jim Croce and John Prine.
During Ehrlich’s tenure, the Grammys have become known for pairing unlikely acts. Tribute performances for the show’s “in memoriam” segment have included Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt tipping their caps to the Clash’s Joe Strummer; Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston saluting Ray Charles; and Jennifer Hudson honoring Houston. On Dec. 19, some of this year’s performers were announced: Rapper Kendrick Lamar and rock band Imagine Dragons will play together, and Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Blake Shelton will collaborate as well.
“Ken and I have worked together since 1984 and we’ve figured out a nice rhythm between the network, production and the Academy,” Sussman says. “To make the most entertaining event possible, the shorthand has to be great between the three parties.”
This year’s telecast, which will again be hosted by LL Cool J, will also feature P!nk and fun.’s Nate Ruess, presumably singing their Grammy-nominated “Just Give Me a Reason,” and Daft Punk’s first TV performance since the 2008 Grammys. But Ehrlich’s proudest Grammy moments aren’t just the big names he’s brought to the stage. A performance on the show has often proved to be a key breakthrough for newer artists, he says -- and this year, with Lamar and Imagine Dragons’ collaboration, and Macklemore & Lewis and Lorde nominated for several awards, could be a prime example.
“When we’re lucky, it’s Mumford & Sons, Ricky Martin, Civil Wars,” Ehrlich says, naming acts whose status greatly elevated after appearing on the telecast. “You could name them on two hands, but there are enough of them in the last 10 years that we can say that’s what we’ve done. When it’s artists I believe in musically, it’s great when these things happen.”