On a soundstage in Studio City, Calif., an audience full of young people, most of whom weren’t born before the ‘90s, is wildly applauding a beloved icon of the 1980s. “Give it up for Tawny Kitaen!” says Arsenio Hall, exhorting the studio audience. “She did amazing things for the band Whitesnake and amazing things for the auto industry too!” he adds, referring to her starring role in the Jaguar-straddling “Here I Go Again” video. “So on behalf of that lucky car hood and a very grateful nation, Greatest Hits would like to present this greatest video babe lifetime achievement award… When was the last time you’ve been on a car hood?”
“Last week,” replies Kitaen, looking no less sex-kitten-ish decades later. “No, seriously.”
This campy moment makes it clear Greatest Hits won’t likely be confused with the Grammys by any passing viewers when it goes on the air June 30. Yet ABC’s six-episode summer series has a lot of Grammy DNA in its blood, with that telecast’s veteran helmer, Ken Ehrlich, as an executive producer and a lot of his usual awards-telecast team (including director Leon Knoles and writer David Wild) on board. And they’re aiming to work in some of those patented “Grammy moments” amid the irreverent ones.
The series, which is co-hosted by Hall and country up-and-comer Kelsea Ballerini, celebrates music from 1980-2005 using artists from that not terribly distant era as well the hitmakers of the moment, sometimes in duets, sometimes on their own. Ehrlich has come up with some teamings that wouldn’t look out of place in his regular annual gig: Bonnie Raitt with Andra Day; the Backstreet Boys with Meghan Trainor; John Legend saluting Lauryn Hill. And then there are the folks who, like the newly award-winning Kitaen, wouldn’t normally merit a prime-time gig outside of a nostalgia context.
At his desk backstage, Ehrlich laughs about nostalgia not being what it used to be. “Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On”– that’s one of those songs you might have a little difficulty saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s an oldie?’ But time moves on! And it moves on at an incredible pace. The network was pretty clear pretty clear that they wanted a show that went from 1980 to 2005. I think originally I had said to them let’s go back to the ‘’70s, but they felt pretty strongly about those particular years, probably because the demo was something that was really attractive to them. My musical likes are a lot broader than that, but that seemed like a pretty good idea. In 1993, I did a two-hour NBC special that was a celebration of the ‘70s, so it makes sense 20 years later to be reviving the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’m a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, so to me, even going to the ‘70s [as an oldies concept] is still a little bit of a push. But us dinosaurs have to move forward with the times. It doesn’t stop me from loving Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett.”
And, of course, Redding and Pickett are not currently available for network appearances. En Vogue, Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, Kim Carnes, Ray Parker Jr., and Kool & the Gang are. Some of the other marquee attractions: Miguel reviving Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”; Fifth Harmony saluting Destiny’s Child; and pairings of Lee Ann Womack with Rachel Platten, Jewel with Tori Kelly, and Mario with Zendaya.
“I’ll be honest with you: I thought that I could probably create what we like to call Grammy moments five times a show,” says Ehrlich. “So we basically then said, okay, we can’t do that, so let’s do what we can do and do the duets that we can make work. There’s nothing wrong in having the original artists perform (on their own), or having these current artists doing their versions of these classic songs.”
Little Big Town is one of the unpaired acts. They’re making up for their lack of a duet partner with quantity. At this particular May taping, they’re doing Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” and an a cappella snippet of Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun.” Their four-part harmonies on these oldies are more spontaneous than their tightness might make them appear. “We were still arranging this afternoon, if I’m being honest,” Karen Fairchild says backstage. But “we are good crammers,” adds Kimberly Schlapman. “And we’d been talking for six or eight months about putting ‘Fallin’’ in our show before this ever came up. Now that we’ve worked it up, we might actually do that.”
Arsenio Hall points out that the idea of “Grammy moments” isn’t peculiar to the Grammys; he liked doing pairings on his own Fox talk show. “The people at ABC obviously knew what I used to do in my other incarnation,” he says. “One of the ABC executives reminded me of one of the shows I did, and it was where I put The Temptations with Boyz II Men… I remember putting En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa on (together)…. Now you can’t find a track without the word ‘featuring’ in the title. When you’re watching the radio when Sirius is on, the ‘featuring’ dot-dot-dot, you don’t get the whole name. I started to wonder: Who is this guy ‘Featuring’? He’s hitting hard!”
Hall is paired with Ballerini, who only has one album out, albeit a lone album that almost single-handedly revived the idea that a young woman could still succeed at country radio post-Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert.
“Her excitement for something that maybe I’ve done many times is amazing,” says Hall. “I love working with her because I remember that point in my career when it was blowing up and you’re young and everything’s wonderful and exciting. I love working with her. When I met her, the only thing I knew about her was a song called ‘Dibs.’ What I was vibing on was, ‘dibs’ was a word that went away. I hadn’t heard that word since Cleveland in I don’t even want to say the year. Call it country, but you took a word from the ghetto and you brought it back. She’s 22 and I’m 122, but we’re doing the same lingo, same language. Music is amazing. We’ll be talking and I’ll tell her my first gig, opening for Aretha Franklin, how hard it was when everybody wants to see Aretha and doesn’t want to see you. She said, ‘When I was little, I used to sit and sing Aretha Franklin and get those soul riffs.’ Just when you think you have nothing to talk to a 22-year-old about, somebody brings you Ballerini.”
Your favorite artists have come together to make the best playlist of the summer! https://t.co/agBJV6Wz7m
— Greatest Hits (@greatesthitsabc) June 29, 2016
That gives Hall an idea. “Kelsea Ballerini and Aretha Franklin do ‘Respect’ — that’s the way we open that (next season). I’ll call Aretha. See, Aretha don’t like to fly, but I’ll drive Aretha here if she’ll work with Kelsea.”
Ballerini says she and Hall “clicked immediately. He’s just so used to being on TV, obviously, and I’m still so new to it, but he’s big-brothered me and made me feel comfortable. We go off-script and crack jokes the whole time.” Her knowledge some of the older acts is mixed, she admits. “Like we just did… what was the one Foreigner did with Fun? The love song. Oh, gosh… “ Her manager prompts her, and she begins singing. “’I want to know what love is, I want you to show me’ — I could have never told you who it was by, but I know that song.” But it was the combination of Trainor with the Backstreet Boys on “I Want it That Way” where “the pre-teen in me fell over.”
One clear reason a show like Greatest Hits can get a shot is because of the sheer number of songs from this era that have shown up and rocked intergenerational worlds on American Idol and The Voice. But musical director Ricky Minor thinks it “speaks to shows like Empire and Nashville and [dramatic] shows that have a lot of music,” too, paving the way for a return to prime-time tuneage. “It definitely is radical, because it’s not a competition and it’s not an awards show.”
Could there be a second season next summer — or sooner? Ehrlich says ABC came to him mid-Grammy season. “The ‘oh, by the way’ came maybe the week after the Grammys: They said ‘Oh, by the way, we want the show on the air June 30,’ and that was the middle of February, which is basically two and a half months to get a show done. But how could I say no to a show where I wind up now with people walking into the stage and it’s old home week? I don’t think I’m built to do 35 acts in two weeks [of actual production]. But I like working. I’m an old guy. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do this. And [finding] the commonality [between artists] is what I’ve tried to do all my life — music being this common language that brings people together. I may be one of the last guys who actually believes that.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.