In his 40 years as producer or executive producer of the Grammy Awards, Ken Ehrlich was responsible for many innovations. But he will always be best known for one idea — the Grammy Moment. At their best, these are the unique performances — often pairings — that you can’t see anywhere else.
In light of today’s news that Ehrlich will be stepping down after the 2020 Grammy telecast, here are 16 of his most memorable Grammy moments.
This performance seemed to mark the passing of the torch. Usher started things off with a sleek rendition of his then-current hit, “Caught Up.” Brown followed with one of his signature hits, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” This was to be Brown’s last Grammy appearance. He died on Christmas Day 2006.
The rockers teamed to perform The Clash‘s punk classic in tribute to that band’s Joe Strummer, who had died two months previously. They were joined by No Doubt‘s Tony Kanal on bass and Costello sideman Pete Thomas on drums. The performance set a standard for all-star tributes on future shows.
Forty-two years after the Beatles’ Abbey Road received a Grammy nom for album of the year, McCartney performed the prized closing medley from the album — “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End.” Macca got some high-powered back-up from The Boss, a Foo Fighter and an Eagle. Appropriately, the performance closed the show. You want to try to follow that?
Melissa Etheridge, “Piece of My Heart” (2005)
Bald after undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, Etheridge performed a blistering version of the Janis Joplin classic in tribute to the late star who was receiving a posthumous lifetime achievement award. Etheridge’s performance was thrillingly alive, fueled, perhaps, by her brush with mortality. Joss Stone also participated in the tribute.
Chance the Rapper became the first streaming-exclusive artist to win a Grammy. Chance performed two songs from his Coloring Book mixtape, “All We Got” and “How Great,” in an exhilarating, genre-bridging sequence which also featured gospel stars Franklin and Mann and a white-robed gospel choir.
Smith was the night’s top winner with four awards, including record and song of the year for “Stay with Me.” Blige joined Smith to perform the ballad on the telecast, bringing added intensity to the already soulful song. (Blige had vowed, in a 2002 Grammy performance, that there would be “No More Drama,” but that was a promise she couldn’t keep.)
Madonna opened the show with an imaginative sequence in which she interacted with the animated cartoon band Gorillaz. The spot, which marked the first use of hologram on TV, fused Madonna’s “Hung Up” and Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.,” a record of the year contender. This marked the third time the producers turned to Madonna for an opening number, a sign of her broad appeal and strong theatrical instincts.
Beyoncé was just 22 and riding the success of her first solo album, but Ehrlich figured she would be up to the challenge of opening the telecast performing alongside a legend. He was right. Now she’s a legend, too.
Michael Jackson, “The Way You Make Me Feel”/”Man in the Mirror” (1988)
Jackson didn’t win a thing at the 30th annual Grammy Awards, but he left behind a performance clip that is one of the most captivating in Grammy history. Whatever else there is to say about him, no one disputes that he was an amazing performer.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed their marriage-equality anthem “Same Love,” a song of the year contender. They were joined by New Orleans musician Trombone Shorty and by Queen Latifah, who officiated at the weddings of 33 same- and opposite-sex couples. Madonna then joined the assemblage with a tender rendition of her 1987 hit, “Open Your Heart.” You can call it a stunt if you want to, but the Grammys took a stand on an important social issue that was then unsettled. Seventeen months later, the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
Ricky Martin, “La Copa De La Vida (The Cup of Life)” (1999)
It’s rare that you are able to pinpoint the exact moment someone became a star. This was that moment for Ricky Martin. When he stepped out to sing the 1998 World Cup anthem, he was known in the Latin music world. By the time he finished, he was known by everybody. Within months, Martin had a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and a No. 1 single on the Hot 100.
Aretha Franklin, “Nessun Dorma” (1998)
The Queen of Soul forever demonstrated her versatility when she filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti on this classic from Puccini’s opera, Turandot. Franklin had performed the piece at the annual MusiCares dinner two nights earlier, but had no idea, until just a few hours before show time, that she would be singing it on live TV. The response to her bravura performance proved that a great singer can sing anything.
Jennifer Hudson, “I Will Always Love You” (2012)
Whitney Houston‘s death the day before the Grammys shocked fans around the world. It also forced Grammy producers to scramble to come up with a fitting tribute literally overnight. Hudson’s version of Houston’s signature song is gentler and more subdued than Houston’s steel-belted rendition. Hudson wasn’t trying to top Houston, just honor her memory.
Bruce Springsteen, “Streets of Philadelphia” (1995)
TV Production 101 holds that you open an awards show with a big, rousing number. But the best producers know when to throw the rulebook out the window. Springsteen opened the 1995 telecast with “Streets of Philadelphia,” which he composed for Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama, Philadelphia. Moments later, the somber ballad was named song of the year.
Eminem had been under fire for lyrics that were seen as homophobic and misogynistic. Elton, the world’s most famous gay pop star, lent his support because he cared more about Eminem’s artistry than his personal views. Steely Dan beat Eminem for album of the year that night, but what lingers in the memory is this riveting performance. Ehrlich promoted it throughout the show. He knew what he had.
Ehrlich can’t take credit for this pairing. The duet, a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100, was up for record of the year. But he can take credit for getting out of the way and letting the performance be a model of understatement. Walking out without an introduction, the two stars faced each other from opposite sides of the stage and slowly came together. When, near the end of the song, Streisand stroked Diamond’s cheek, the audience erupted. The lesson: When you have real stars, you don’t need a lot of production or effects. Less really can be more.
This piece was adapted from a longer piece which Grein wrote for the program book for the 60th annual Grammy Awards in 2018.