Ken Ehrlich has produced more than 200 TV specials and live events, but the producer, who’s getting a star Jan. 28 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is perhaps best known as the creator of “Grammy moments,” those unforgettable, chill-inducing performances that transcend television to become pop culture milestones — and the next day’s water cooler conversation. Elton John and Eminem singing “Stan” together at the 2001 Grammys, after Eminem had been accused of homophobia? That was Ehrlich’s doing. So was the massive on-air same-sex and opposite-sex marriage ceremony from the 2014 Grammys as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed their hit, “Same Love.” And the moment a bald, jubilant Melissa Etheridge, fresh from her chemo treatments for breast cancer, gave viewers goosebumps as she sang a defiant “Piece of My Heart” on the 2005 Grammy stage. “If I’ve influenced the awards show landscape, that’s what it is,” says Ehrlich, who marks his 35th anniversary as producer of the Grammys this year. “Everybody tries to do what we do now.”
His philosophy is simple: “The root of it for me is: What can I do to elevate the artist?,” he says. “I don’t think I’m as smart as a lot of people. I don’t think I have the business sense of other people. But when it comes to a musical vocabulary and an ability to look someone in the eye, sometimes you have to tell them what they may not want to hear. For some reason, I can do that pretty painlessly. “If you talk to artists, I’d be surprised if the common thread (isn’t) ‘Ken tells me the truth.’”
For Bonnie Raitt, who has known Ehrlich since the mid-’70s, that translates to trust. Ehrlich has a singular ability to “bring out what is most unique about (an artist); stretching them and allowing, by his inventive pairings, to bring out in each other things that others might not elicit,” she says. “He understands what’s special about someone and you always feel so respected, deeply understood and welcomed.” For the television executives he works with, he’s known for his ability to dream big and then execute his vision. “Ken is a great salesman— about what he’s prepared to do, what he’s willing to do and what he’s able to deliver,” says Jack Sussman, executive VP of special, music and live events for CBS Entertainment. The two first worked together when Sussman was at VH1 and they now work together on the Grammys and other CBS music specials. “The difference between him and a lot of people is he delivers.” In addition to his work on the Grammys, Ehrlich has executive produced six Emmycasts, and produced the PBS series “Soundstage” and “In Performance at the White House,” as well as co-created the VH1’s “Divas” and the “MTV Movie Awards” franchises over his 47-year producing career. Live events are his specialty, including the mega-concert celebrating Nelson Mandela’s prison release, the Madison Square Garden benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims (and the post-Katrina reopening of the Superdome with U2 and Green Day) as well as one of his latest causes, producing Central Park’s Global Citizen Festival. The genesis of the so-called Grammy Moments occurred long before he became affiliated with the awards show. Ehrlich discovered the potent power of the proper pairing while he was producing “Soundstage” at Chicago’s WTTW in the mid-’70s. “People ask me what is a Grammy moment,” he says. “It started because I said (on ‘Soundstage’), ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to put Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock together. They had never met, (though) they had both played for Miles Davis.” Next came teaming Dion and Phil Everly and Ehrlich realized he was on to something.
“What Ken created with ‘Soundstage’ was truly magical, and his brilliance has carried through every music program with which he is associated,” says Nicolette Ferri, WTTW’s executive producer/director of national program development. “He respects and highlights the music in unforgettable and important ways, regardless of any budgetary limitations.” When Ehrlich signs on for a new project, his way in is through the music. “The creative process is elusive, to be sure,” he says, “but as long as there’s music involved, it’s like a diving board that I leap onto two or three times before diving in the water and by the time I hit the water, I have some ideas. The music triggers it for me.” The possibilities for potential musical collaborations spring forth organically in his mind. “It’s just easy for me,” he says. “I’m not always right about it, but I hear a piece of music and by the time that song is over, I can think of four other songs and artists that I think could go with that person. That’s what I think I do better than other people.” Ehrlich also prides himself on his musical rapport with the artists and his ability to speak their language. From the start, Ehrlich has treated artists with respect, but acted as their equal — a valuable lesson passed on by the Grammys long-time director, the since-retired Walter Miller. “I learned so much from him about the approach to artists,” he says. “Don’t ever show them you’re afraid. Tell them what you feel.” Celine Dion, whose many collaborations with Ehrlich include her Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace, says, “He has strong opinions about what he wants to do, but he’s also very open to any suggestions. “Ken’s got a great sense of humor so that makes working with him a lot of fun.” A Cleveland Heights, Ohio, native, Ehrlich has been married for 48 years and calls his two children his greatest productions. He displayed a love for music since boyhood. Every Sunday night, he would write down the Top 10 as played by WERE’s Bill Randle, the pioneering disc jockey who first brought Elvis Presley to Cleveland. In high school, Ehrlich played keyboards in The Continentals, named after the drummer’s father’s car, which was the only car any of the parents owned big enough for the drum kit.
He was an avid record collector, with his collection composed of records he bought and some he lifted from the radio station where he worked as a high school sportscaster. He also stole some from Higbee’s department store — until he got busted for shoplifting. His favorites were often released by Capitol Records and he was enamored with the line drawing of the Capitol Records Tower on the back. So for the location for his Hollywood star, only one place would do. Thanks to his friends at the record company, he wrangled a spot right in front of Capitol Records’ legendary tower, near the Beatles’ star. The proximity to his musical heroes and the Capitol building means as much to him as the honor. “It’s more than a building, it’s even more than a landmark,” he says. “It’s a living breathing testament to how music is made.” At 72, there’s little career-wise that has eluded Ehrlich except for producing the Academy Awards. “I would love to do the Oscars,” he says, “but they would conflict with the Grammys time wise.” He’s worked with all the artists on his bucket list —the Rolling Stones were the last act he needed to check off. But he’s far from done. He recently signed a new contract that keeps him at the Grammy helm through 2017. Retirement isn’t something he remotely contemplates. “There’s part of me sometimes that wonders whether I’m just trying to prove that I can still do it, “ he says. “I’ll stop when the phone stops ringing. I’ll do it as long as people will have me.” Tipsheet What: Ken Ehrlich Walk of Fame Ceremony When: 11:30 a.m. Jan. 28 Where: 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood on the east side of the street, in front of Capitol Records web: walkoffame.com