Faced with the daunting task of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Grammys while staging its usual annual awards telecast, the show’s producers created an ingenious plan: They’d lessen the pressure to look back during the telecast by producing a greatest-hits clip program to air months before the awards show.
“My Night at the Grammys,” which aired Nov. 30 on CBS, featured some of the most memorable appearances in Grammy history, including performances by Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson, and such one-time collaborations as Paul McCartney, Jay-Z and Linkin Park.
Although the special didn’t win in the ratings, up against ABC’s broadcast of the holiday-themed “The Polar Express,” the show provided music fans a cornucopia of Grammy highlights and took a load off the producers’ shoulders.
Although Ehrlich is mum on the specifics of plans for this year’s show, he says at least four or five of the approximately 18 or 19 performances on the telecast will be a nod to the past, bringing generations together or uniting musical genres.
He and fellow Grammys executive producer John Cossette, and his father, the now-retired founding executive producer of the telecast, Pierre Cossette, shared with Billboard some of their most memorable—and most disappointing—moments that occurred during their years working on the show.
Among the highlights: the historic first-time performance of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, which Ehrlich pulled off in 1980 on his first Grammy telecast.
“They had never performed it at all,” he says. “The record was made up from two different versions of the song that a Chicago disc jockey put together. It may have been the first mash-up of the same song by two different artists. I had a good friend who was Neil’s attorney, so it started with Neil and he actually went to Barbra and got her to agree to do it. It was pretty magical.”
Unique pairings and big reunions have become a hallmark of the Grammy telecasts.
Ehrlich also points to the teaming of Prince and Beyoncé in 2004. Ehrlich recalls: ” I knew that Beyoncé would be interested in doing something, but the fact of the matter is, there had been times in the past when I’d gone to Prince and he would say, ‘Give me $2 million if you want me to perform with somebody.’ He was half-joking. He loves to jam. He loves to play with people, but on worldwide television is quite another matter.”
The Eminem-Elton John duet, which occurred in 2001 in the wake of the controversy in which some critics accused the rapper of spreading homophobia in his lyrics, is one of John Cossette’s favorite moments. Elton John not only came to Eminem’s defense, but performed with the rapper on his hit “Stan.”
The younger Cossette grew up with the Grammys; father Pierre served as executive producer of the show until he retired in 2005. John remembers working as a 14-year-old, pulling people off of Sunset Boulevard to fill the seats at the Hollywood Palladium in 1971 at the first live telecast.
“Now we can sell more tickets than the Staples Center can hold,” he says.
The elder Cossette remembers when the Grammys weren’t such a smooth ride. Prior to his association with the ceremony, Pierre was running Dunhill Records, home of the Mamas & the Papas, Three Dog Night and others, when his friend George Schlatter told him he was giving up producing “The Best on Record,” a show that celebrated the Grammys after the fact with taped performances.
At that time, the Recording Academy was a relatively small operation. Still, Pierre was convinced that a live version of the show would work, although his initial pitch to the networks met a chilly response.
“The networks were not interested in these longhair, Haight Ashbury, hippy-looking guys that wore lipstick and had hair down to their ass and wore high heels,” Pierre recalls. “That wasn’t network fare in those days.”
Finally, Pierre was able to convince ABC to give the program a shot, but he had to make a provision to the Nashville-based president of the academy, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose Music: The show was to alternate among Los Angeles, New York and Nashville.
As for a host, Pierre says the deal with ABC was made providing he found a “middle-of-the-road host. They didn’t want a hillbilly host. They wanted Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, so I went hot and heavy after Andy Williams because I figured that Dean wouldn’t do it and neither would Sinatra. I got Andy to do it, but even he was a little reluctant. But I talked him into it.'”
All was going fairly well until 1973 when ABC, unhappy with the planned move to Nashville, declined to pick up the show’s option. NBC also had no interest, having dropped the Grammys’ predecessor “The Best on Record.” Desperate, Pierre turned to his longtime friend Bob Wood, who was running CBS, but even Wood wouldn’t help him out initially.
However, a chance meeting with Wood’s wife, Laurie, secured Pierre an invite to stay with his friends over the weekend. Wood repeatedly warned Pierre not to bring up the Grammy show. But Pierre couldn’t resist making his pitch during the visit.
Wood relented and the Grammys have been home on CBS ever since. After the Nashville show turned out to be a ratings blockbuster, ABC tried to make up for its mistake of letting the Grammys go by launching the American Music Awards telecast with Dick Clark.
As for the Grammys, Williams turned out to be a perfect host, but even he wasn’t immune to the occasional gaffe. John Cossette recalls the 1977 broadcast when Stevie Wonder was to perform via satellite link from Africa. When the link went down, Williams ad-libbed, “Stevie, can you hear me? Stevie, can you see me?”
Ehrlich points out that the show’s producers had nothing to do with two of the Grammys’ most infamous awards, Milli Vanilli’s best new artist trophy in 1990 and Jethro Tull’s win for best metal act in 1989.
“I still remember going out to some dance rehearsal hall in Burbank [Calif.] or somewhere four or five days before the show, and it was the first time I laid my eyes on [Milli Vanilli],” he says. “I walked in and saw these guys and knew we made a mistake, but it was too late. It was that simple. They were a pop phenomenon and occasionally we yield to that. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Another well-intentioned performance that didn’t quite pan out was an all-star tribute to the Beatles in 2004 featuring Sting, Dave Matthews, Vince Gill and Pharrell Williams. “Not to denigrate any one of those artists, because they came in good spirits and we really tried to make this work, but you probably don’t want to hear ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ by anyone but [the Beatles],” Ehrlich says.
Then there was what Ehrlich refers to as “the great Grammy roller coaster ride” of 1998.
“That was the year that [Luciano] Pavarotti got sick and Aretha [Franklin] filled in, which was another pretty amazing moment,” he recalls. It was also the year that Streisand was supposed to sing with Celine [Dion] and she got sick, so Celine had to perform ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ which was a different song,” he recalls. “They were going to do the duet they recorded, a song called ‘Tell Him.'”
That was also the year a stage intruder with the words “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest bum-rushed the stage while Bob Dylan was performing and put on his own free-form dance routine while Dylan continued singing, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard commandeered the podium and took a trophy out of Shawn Colvin hands.
“We’ll certainly remember 1998,” Ehrlich quips.