Grammy Producer Ken Ehrlich On What He's Learned From Aretha, LL Cool J, P!nk and More

Danny Clinch

This year, Ken Ehrlich will celebrate his 40th and final broadcast as the producer of the Grammy Awards on CBS. As Ehrlich moves on from the role he says he's “incredibly proud” of, the show’s longest-running producer shares lessons he’s learned creating the biggest night in music.

Stay Loose

"With live shows, things can change not just a month in advance or eight weeks in advance or two weeks in advance, but up until the time you’re on the air. If you are rigid, you’ll get creamed. The year when things happened between Chris Brown and Rihanna it was during my dress rehearsal and the two of them bailed on the show. That was the year I had to run to Justin Timberlake and ask him to fill in with Al Green which turned out to be a pretty amazing moment."

Trust the Host's Instincts

"Whitney Houston died the day before our show [in 2012]. [We had to figure out] what to do to acknowledge her passing without turning it into a tribute to Whitney Houston, which we ultimately did a year later. The real save was that LL Cool J was our host. [Writer and producer] David Wild and I sat with LL and talked through what he considered doing with his monologue. He said, 'I've been thinking about this and I think we need to do a prayer.' David and I said, “I don’t know,” but obviously he knew more: that's what he did on the show and it might've been the quietest moment that I've ever had on a Grammy show."

Stay Tight With the Stars

"The night [in 1998] that [Luciano] Pavarotti called and said he couldn’t do the show, we had to go and find Aretha Franklin while we were on the air. She did 'Nessun Dorma.' I am very careful about what I consider to be the relationship between the artists that we work with and know, but the reality is that in times [of cancellations or changes] you come to depend on people and hope that along the way you've done things for them that qualify for them thinking that they should help you when you ask for help.

See the Talent Live

"Performances on this show need to be visual. If the artist doesn't have a visual sense, then it's incumbent upon us to try and develop an idea that adds a visual statement to the performance that they're doing. I don’t think there are more than half a dozen people I have booked on the Grammys that I haven’t seen live first. Their representatives can call me [with streaming, record, etc. numbers], but that doesn't mean that they're going to be great for three and a half or four minutes on a television show."

Give Newbies a Chance

"There are a lot of artists who were known to [only] a certain segment of the audience, but when we put them on the Grammys, they just exploded. P!nk was one of those. She was already a star — I don't want to say that people didn't know her — but when she flew in the air on our show, that was a career maker. Last year, not many people knew who H.E.R. was but she had a pretty strong urban core audience. We developed the song 'Hard Place' with her and now she finds herself nominated for [five awards] because of that song and what she did on the Grammys a year ago."

It Isn't Just About the Hits 

"The odds are better that you are going to create a moment if you try and elevate the artist and maybe not do the hit, or do the hit as a duet or a combination. We were probably a week or 10 days away from the show [in 2019] and I looked at the balance of the show and thought, ‘Wait a minute. I still don't have Dua Lipa or St. Vincent slotted in.’ Within an hour and a half I had called both managers at both labels and both of them said yes. It was the week of the show, they had never met and they did a rehearsal. It was 75% there within an hour. It turned out to be a stunning, elegant, artistic and really different moment."

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.

2020 Grammy Awards