×

Grammys: Dodging Disasters On Music’s Big Night

Producer's cool head spins Grammy crises into gold

Live television is a high-wire act in the best of times. But on a Grammy telecast, with its mercurial slate of divas and rock stars, even the best-laid plans often go awry.

When that happens, and the show threatens to go off the rails, it’s up to producer Ken Ehrlich to improvise and avert disaster — whether it’s the day before, or the show is already under way.

In 2009, production toppers received word the morning of the show, during dress rehearsal, that Rihanna would not be performing as scheduled. A few acts later in the show order, Chris Brown missed his rehearsal slot. They later learned he was preparing to turn himself in to the police ahead of felony criminal threat charges. With three hours to air, Ehrlich had a 10-minute hole in the show.

“You can’t panic in a situation like that, because once you do, you’ve lost your way,” says National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president Neil Portnow.

Ehrlich coolly approached Justin Timberlake to save the day.

“That’s a hard ask,” CBS executive VP of specials, music and live events Jack Sussman observes. “Justin said, ‘I’m in, but what are we going to do?’ ” Timberlake looked over a list of who was to be in the theater that night and picked Al Green for a duet. Green was in the shower when the call came.

“Me and Justin performed ‘Let’s Stay Together,’ and we saved the world!” Green told CBS later.

Ehrlich has even had to improvise during the show. At the top of the 1998 telecast, with a 40-piece orchestra and 20 backup singers ready to go on, opera legend Luciano Pavarotti called in sick.

“He came up to my dressing room and said, ‘We need you to sing,’ ” says Aretha Franklin, who was already scheduled to perform with the Blues Brothers that night. “I said, ‘What? Oh my God.’ ”

He asked her to go on in just a few minutes and cover “Nessun Dorma,” a song she’d recently performed at another event—but in a different key, since it was too late for the band to change their arrangement. Fortunately, Franklin had the range to pull it off.

“I had a great time. I loved the entire production,” she says.

Sometimes a crisis is an emotional one. The day before the 2012 Grammys, Whitney Houston was found dead. The loss cast a pall over the pre-Grammy party for the performers, which was solemn and unsettled, and the mood threatened to dampen the show.

LL Cool J, who was to host the show, called Ehrlich from the party to ask if he could lead a prayer for Houston.

“He was courageous enough to allow me to do that,” LL Cool J says. “It turned out to settle the wound, if nothing else, and give people a chance to exhale, so those artists and everybody who wanted to celebrate felt like they were granted permission to now move on and have a good time.”

Then there was the matter of how to acknowledge Houston’s passing on the show. A downtrodden tribute is not what Houston would have wanted, LL Cool J told Ehrlich. For his part, Ehrlich says “I don’t want to do tributes. It’s too fresh.” Instead, Ehrlich arranged for Jennifer Hudson to sing Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You.”

“He quarterbacked that thing like you wouldn’t believe,” says LL Cool J. “The performances changed. People changed. There were mood swings. There were all kinds of ebbs and flows in the process that really changed the dynamics. I think he handled it superbly.”

Jon Weisman contributed to this report.

More Music

  • J. Cole

    Apple Music Launches 'Rap Life' Playlist

    Apple Music announced the launch of “Rap Life,” a new global playlist focusing on contemporary rap artists and culture. It replaces the former “The A-List: Hip-Hop” playlist. Said Ebro Darden, Apple Music’s Global Editorial Head of Hip-Hop and R&B: “We flipped it to dig deeper into into the lifestyle [and to] keep pushing the culture [...]

  • New York City NYC Placeholder

    CityFM Podcast Takes a Deep Look at New York’s Music Scene (Listen)

    First among the many projects listed at the beginning of New York Music Month in June was a WNYE radio show and podcast called CityFM that promised to “explore the city’s music culture, emerging artists and trends, and upcoming events told through the lens of what’s happening around the city in Summer 2019.” And while [...]

  • Black Ball

    President Trump Speaks in Support of A$AP Rocky (Watch)

    In one of the more surreal moments from a presidency filled with few not-surreal moments, President Trump spoke out today in support of rapper A$AP Rocky, who has been jailed in Sweden for more than two weeks after an altercation with fans he said were harassing him. “A$AP Rocky is a situation in Sweden, a [...]

  • David Crosby and Cameron Crowe'David Crosby:

    Cameron Crowe Picks Five Favorite Underrated David Crosby Tracks

    “Music is love,” as David Crosby once sang, and nothing breeds deeper love than a sense that something is overlooked. So that’s why Variety asked Cameron Crowe to dig deep into the Crosby canon and pick not just a triad but five favorites from among the CSN singer’s most underrated tracks. Crowe, of course, has [...]

  • Live Nation Logo. (PRNewsFoto/Live Nation)

    Live Nation Confirms Placing Tickets Directly on Secondary Market at Artists’ Request

    Representatives for Live Nation, the world’s largest live-entertainment company and owner of Ticketmaster, confirmed that it bypassed conventional channels and directly placed thousands of concert tickets on the secondary market upon artists’ request, in an article published in Billboard. In a statement shared with Variety, the company acknowledged that it has facilitated the transfer of [...]

  • The Lion King The Gift

    Album Review: Beyoncé’s 'The Lion King: The Gift'

    Before touching down on what Beyoncé has called her “love letter to Africa,” it’s important to see what may have brought her to the mother of mankind, with its wide vistas and sonic planes, for “The Gift” in the first place — beyond, of course, voicing Nala in the film and whatever international marketing tie-ins [...]

  • Rick Rubin Spotify Secret Genius Awards,

    Seven Things We Learned About 'Shangri-La' and Rick Rubin from Showtime's Series

    Showtime’s documentary series “Shangri-La” insists it is not a biographical documentary on uber-producer Rick Rubin, and it’s not meant as a four-hour advertisement for Rubin’s legendary Malibu studio, after which the four-part series is named … but it feels like a little bit of both those things. “Shangri-La” is primarily filmed at the studio where [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content