Behind the Grammys' Complicated 'In Memoriam' Situation

Lady Gaga and Nile Rodgers
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Lady Gaga and Nile Rodgers performs onstage during the 58th Annual Grammy music Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 2016.  

A wave of deaths complicates an already political process as Natalie Cole's family blasts Grammy producers.

"Death, Be Not Prolific" might have been the collective wish of music fans beset by the recent losses of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Maurice White, among others... but especially for Grammy Awards brass, who had to rip up much of their playbook for the 58th edition to squeeze in more tributes than ever in the telecast's past.

Says longtime producer Ken Ehrlich: "We had a good deal of the show laid out around the end of 2015. Of 20 slots, 11 or 12 acts were booked, and we were filling the others. With the exception of B.B. King, all of these passings happened since then. It became a challenge to do the proper thing and, at the same time, not let the show turn into a series of tributes." If the telecast ultimately skewed that direction, "honestly, I think some of it was because of the proximity [of the deaths] to the show. Not that that was the overriding factor, or that the significance of an artist's contribution is diminished by date. But the reality is that with this 24-hour news cycle, that is a factor."

Beyond the performance homages, Grammys co-writer David Wild points out that Ehrlich "allowed the 'In Memoriam' package to go over the assigned time. It was maybe 55 people. That doesn't mean there aren't 150 you want to put in." (As filmmaker Chad Darnell quipped on Twitter: "They are going through this In Memoriam faster than movie credits scrolled on basic cable!") Wild adds that inclusions and exclusions "become a bit political. You don't want to disrespect anyone."

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Those politics of posthumousness made news when three members of Natalie Cole's family publicly aired grievances over the nine-time Grammy winner receiving a vintage video clip rather than an all-star performance. Natalie's sisters, Timolin and Casey Cole, noted their "outrage and utter disappointment at the disrespectful tribute, or lack thereof." To them, however long the video, it was an indistinct tag to the "In Memoriam" montage.

Counters Ehrlich, "For the record, there was an email exchange. I told Timolin what we were doing, and she seemed very happy with it." Rumors circulated that the production team tried and failed to get a female superstar to salute Cole before landing on the video. Even if that had happened, having someone cover Cole's Grammy smash "Unforgettable" would have been weirdly meta, as a salute to her salute to her late father, Nat "King" Cole. "At one point I was playing around with 'Miss You Like Crazy,' because I love that song," Ehrlich says. "But when I looked again at the Grammy show where she won for 'Unforgettable,' and I saw the last 45 seconds of that number, where her father (Nat 'King' Cole, on the big screen) throws her a kiss, she throws him a kiss, and then she turns to the audience and throws everybody a kiss -- that just was so touching and emotional to me," and he decided that would beat any artist they could get to re-create it. "It's not like we were trying to get in there and be done with it," adds Wild. "Ken often had Natalie back on the show, went to her service, and always spoke lovingly of her. When he showed that clip to me, he was in tears because it meant so much to him."

Other tributes were smoother. "We already had booked Lady Gaga, and were headed in another direction… then when David Bowie passed, we were calling each other almost at the same time," says Ehrlich. "A no-brainer, on both our parts." He'd been looking up Album of the Year nominee Chris Stapleton's YouTube clips when he saw the country belter growling out a cover of "The Thrill is Gone," which made him a natural to join up with Bonnie Raitt and Gary Clark Jr. to salute King. As for the somewhat less expected salute to Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister: "I will confess I didn't have a lot of Motorhead on my iPad," Ehrlich says. "The metalheads have Dave Grohl to thank for that, because when I asked Dave if he would introduce that [In Memoriam] segment, he said to me, 'I'll do it if you do something for Lemmy.'" That also offered an opportunity to offer some actual rock on the show, a genre that hasn't always been in abundance on 2010s Grammy telecasts.

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As for the Eagles with Jackson Browne, "to be honest I'm amazed it happened," says Ehrlich. Not only was it a rare example of a salute performed by actual bandmates, but the performance came less than a month after Glenn Frey's death. "I called Irving [Azoff, their manager] and said I realized we're so close to it at this point, but do you think there's a possibility that they would come and salute Glenn? And initially, it was 'highly unlikely.' And then things just changed over the course of a week." No one on stage appeared to be taking it emotionally easy. "I spoke with Joe [Walsh] afterward, and I could tell from just looking at Don [Henley] and Jackson that it was emotional for them. I'm really glad we had the opportunity to do" what may go down as the last public Eagles performance ever, "and I'm sorry we had to do it, but I think it was fitting."

Inevitably, even with an overtime In Memoriam segment this year, there were still complaints about omissions, like the absence of Vanity -- but Wild says they only learned about her death as the show was hitting the air, leaving no time to edit her into the pre-recorded piece.

Loading the show with the dearly departed is not always Ehrlich's first instinct as a producer, says Wild, who points out that, unlike the Oscars and Emmys, the Grammys didn't even have an "In Memoriam" segment until the early 2000s, because of Ehrlich's resistance to letting melancholy trump topical euphoria. "When he got his head around that," Wild says, "was when he began to see how performances could be integrated to make it emotionally more significant." Ehrlich says people look at a eulogy-heavy lineup and think "it will be sad and depressing, but I don't think it's a morbid fascination. when you're paying tribute to music people with music, it's by definition celebratory." 

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And less inherently nostalgic than it was in the days when salutes would have tended toward aged crooners. "Artists used to retire at a much younger age," Ehrlich says, "so you didn't see them for 10 or 15 years, and then when they passed away, the memories were more distant. Now they've very current" -- as evidenced by the fact that Frey was still touring with the Eagles just last summer, and Bowie's recent release will be a front-runner for Album of the Year in 2017. 

"Even in this on-demand era," Wild says, "I think people still turn to event TV to share a moment, and with these, it becomes kind of like Our Town -- a moment when people are together almost at the town center and you can deal with losses and work them out in different ways. When you look at the math of it all in the years to come" -- with so many classic rockers in their 70s, and up -- "I think the challenge will be for Ken to find the right balance. He's well aware of not wanting to let it overwhelm." 

If it inevitably does, prepare for less of the traditional awards-show hate-tweeting and a lot more cry-tweeting.

A version of this article was originally published in the Feb. 27 issue of Billboard.

2016 Grammys