Tuesday (Jan. 26) marks the one-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash just hours before the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, which were set to go live at 5 p.m. PT.
A helicopter carrying Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers went down in heavy fog in Calabasas, Calif., just after 9:45 a.m. PT. The first reports began circulating shortly after 11 a.m. TMZ broke the story at 11:32 a.m. with a tweet: “BREAKING: Kobe Bryant Has Died In A Helicopter Crash.”
The Grammy dress rehearsal had been underway for about an hour when the news broke. The rehearsal and the show itself were held at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Grammys have taken place in all but two years since 2000 — and where Bryant worked his magic with the LA Lakers.
From the moment of the TMZ tweet, the Grammy production team had less than five and a half hours to revamp the show before it went live. And they of course had to continue with the dress rehearsal, which is where they time the show and give the performers any final notes prior to the telecast. So in essence, they just had the couple of hours between the end of dress rehearsal and going live.
In an interview with Billboard that ran two days after last year’s Grammy telecast, Ken Ehrlich, who was in his final year as the show’s executive producer and co-writer, said he immediately knew the show would have to do something.
“We were at Staples, we were at his house. We’re sitting there looking up at [his] two [retired] jerseys that are on the wall there. So there was no way we could not do it.”
Ehrlich huddled with fellow Grammy show executives Ben Winston (co-executive producer) David Wild (producer and co-writer) and Garry Hood (lead stage manager), to come up with a plan, which they took to Alicia Keys, who was hosting the show for the second year in a row.
Boyz II Men was already booked to perform on the show in a segment with Tyler, the Creator and Charlie Wilson. That led Keys to think of the group’s 1991 hit “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” as a fitting tribute.
“We found them [Boyz II Men] and they went into her dressing room,” Ehrlich told Billboard last year. “It was about 15 minutes before showtime. They spent probably 10 minutes working it out and then it was there.”
Keys was somber as she took the stage. “Here we are together on music’s biggest night celebrating the artists that do it best, but to be honest with you, we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now because earlier today in Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built…
“We never imagined in a million years we’d have to start the show like this, so we wanted to do something to describe a tiny bit how we feel right now.”
With that, Boyz II Men joined Keys for “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
Though the tribute was assembled quickly, it hit the right emotional notes. In a night-of-show recap, Billboard’s Joe Lynch wrote, “It was an understated, touching moment that had the audience fighting back tears.”
This wasn’t the first time that Ehrlich and his team had to scramble to cover a death in the run-up to the show. Whitney Houston, whose entire career played out on the Grammy stage, died on Feb. 11, 2012, the day before the 54th annual Grammy Awards telecast.
Again, Ehrlich knew the show had to do something. “We would be remiss if we didn’t recognize Whitney’s remarkable contribution to music fans in general and in particular her close ties with the Grammy telecast … over the years,” he told The Los Angeles Times at the time.
During the telecast, footage of a radiant Houston performing “I Will Always Love You” at the 1994 Grammys was shown. LL Cool J, who was hosting the show for the first time, recited a prayer. Later in the program, following the In Memoriam segment, Jennifer Hudson paid tribute to Houston and the other artists who had died during the year by performing “I Will Always Love You.”
Awards shows nowadays are expected to be nimble, to react to breaking news developments. To ignore or gloss over them would make the show seem out-of-touch; too “canned” and rigidly programmed.
When shows react to breaking news, especially if it’s a beloved artist’s death or a national tragedy, they give voice to the audience’s grief and give the audience permission to enjoy an entertainment program. If the show doesn’t seem to understand how the audience is feeling, there would be a disconnect — and viewers might be more apt to tune out.
The Grammy telecast in 2012 was the second-highest rated in its history, topped only by the 1984 show, where Michael Jackson became the first artist to win eight Grammys in one night.
Two factors explain the 2012 ratings spike. Adele’s blockbuster album 21 was expected to sweep (which it did). And people wanted to see how the Grammys would handle Houston’s death — something they couldn’t possibly have planned for. It’s one thing to see what a show does when it has weeks or even months to plan. The real test is to see what they can do when they’re forced to scramble.
Ehrlich, who received a trustees award from the Recording Academy last year in recognition of 40 years as producer or executive producer of the Grammy telecast, told Billboard this week that these moments test a producer’s mettle.
He was thinking not only of these two shows, but also the 1998 telecast, where Aretha Franklin had to fill in at the last minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti, and the 2009 show, where two scheduled performers — Chris Brown and Rihanna — dropped out at the last minute following Brown’s assault of his then-girlfriend.
“There’s something kind of adrenalin-producing when something like this happens. I don’t look forward to it and you don’t want these kinds of things to happen, but when they happen, [it adds to] the thrill of doing live television. … When you add that other layer, it’s tense. What are you going to do?”
Ehrlich agreed that awards show producers are expected to respond to outside events more than they used to be.
“We had more latitude [on the Grammys] in recent years to be responsive to events that were breaking news around the time of the show. Certainly, with Whitney, we were expected to be responsive. [Last] year, there wasn’t any question we were going to be responsive to what happened with Kobe.”
The Grammys weren’t always this nimble. For many years, only that year’s nominated artists were allowed to perform on the show, and they were allowed to perform only their nominated work.
The 23rd annual Grammy Awards aired on Feb. 25, 1981, less than three months after John Lennon was shot to death. The show was held in New York that year, at Radio City Music Hall, just blocks from The Dakota, where Lennon was gunned down.
Amazingly, the Grammys didn’t do a special tribute. The only acknowledgement of the death of one of the most influential musicians who ever lived came at the end of the show, when host Paul Simon said, “We’ll miss his music, his humor and his common sense.”
Ehrlich was in his second year producing the show, under executive producer Pierre Cossette. He says now “I don’t remember any effort on the part of the Academy to say, ‘No, you can’t do anything.’ In those days, it just kind of wasn’t done.”
The Grammys didn’t even have an In Memoriam segment until the 45th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 23, 2003. That first segment was such a success, it has been a fixture on the show ever since. Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl — backed by Tony Kanal of No Doubt and Costello bandmate Pete Thomas on drums — capped the segment by playing The Clash’s anthem “London Calling” in honor of the band’s Joe Strummer, who had died two months earlier.
The Grammys have also come to acknowledge major news events. On the 52nd annual Grammy Awards in January 2010, Andrea Bocelli, Mary J. Blige and David Foster performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in memory of victims of the devastating Haiti earthquake. On the 60th annual Grammys in 2018, Eric Church, Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne performed “Tears in Heaven” in tribute to victims of the bombing outside an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.
And so, the Grammys came to finally acknowledge that while that year’s nominations tell much of the story that needs to be told on the Grammy telecast, they will probably never tell the whole story.
Ehrlich shares credit for the success of the Bryant tribute with Keys, who came up with the song and found the right tone; lighting designer Robert A. Dickinson, who had the idea to put a light on Bryant’s jerseys for the entire show; and especially director Louis J. Horvitz. “Lou had the hardest job,” Ehrlich told Billboard. “All of sudden, the first 10 minutes of the show is thrown into the wastebasket and we started over. He found out what we were going to do probably an hour before the show.”