Hardly an “In Memoriam” segment goes by in any awards show without a resultant controversy over which recently deceased luminary got left out. In the case of the 2016 Grammys, though, the fracas hasn’t been over someone being forgotten, but whether the late Natalie Cole deserved an all-star tribute performance instead of a vintage film clip.
The Grammy telecast’s helmers believe they did Cole right with the video salute. “Frankly, I think it was appropriate,” said the show’s longtime producer, Ken Ehrlich, who thought the video clip was the most “touching and emotional” tribute he could have presented to his friend.
Cole’s sisters, Timolin and Casey Cole, have not been shy about begging to differ. “Sadly a FORGETTABLE tribute to Natalie Cole,” they said in a written statement released to Entertainment Tonight Tuesday. “Words cannot express the outrage and utter disappointment at the disrespectful tribute, or lack thereof, to a legendary artist such as our sister.” Before the show, Timolin Cole also aired her grievances with the New York Post’s Page Six, saying, “Why wouldn’t you have a medley of two or three songs? There are many hits that could be sung and great artists who could perform them.”
Ehrlich tells Billboard he was taken aback by the family’s complaints, believing the show had their blessing. “For the record, there was an email exchange, and I told Timolin what we were doing, and she seemed to be very happy with it. And what I told her is that we had talked about having an artist do something for Natalie; at one point I was playing around with ‘Miss You Like Crazy,’ because I love that song. But when I looked again at the Grammy show we did 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 so emotional to me that that felt like it had to be the end of the whole ‘In Memoriam’ segment. I hadn’t looked at that clip in several years, but when I saw it again, I knew it was right.”
David Wild, who’s co-written the Grammy telecast since 2001, concurs that just as much thought went into how to pay homage to Cole as any of the recently departed honorees on the show, although she didn’t get a live, multi-star production number of the sort afforded David Bowie and B.B. King.
“Natalie Cole was one where I talked to Ken 10 seconds after we both found out that she passed, and he loved her,” says Wild. “Before she passed, we always would have her on the show to present, and she was one of his favorites. In fact, he went to her service.” Although there were discussions about who to get to cover her — the Grammys won’t speak to whether anyone was approached — “that clip really impacted him, and he thought, he’s not gonna do better at Natalie than Natalie. When he found that clip and showed it to me, he was sort of in tears, because it meant so much to him.”
For more on how this year’s Grammy tribute segments came about, check out this Friday’s edition of Billboard.