‘In Performance at the White House’: Fist-Bumping Bob Dylan, Bonding With Obama

Public TV series a hit with first couple

In Performance at the White House
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Not many people on this Earth can boast being on a fist-bump basis with Bob Dylan. Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich, however, fist bumps Dylan all the time.

Ehrlich spends a lot of time palling around with music legends. And he uses those friendships to coax Dylan and other stars to perform for the greater good.

And sometimes, that means coaxing them all the way to the White House.

Ehrlich’s long affiliation with the Grammys and his deep appreciation for music history led naturally to an interest in the Grammy Museum. His chief contribution to the museum’s outreach efforts is his work on “In Performance at the White House,” which he has produced since 2010 along with Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, and Dalton Delan, executive VP and chief programming officer of public TV station WETA in Washington, D.C.

“In Performance” airs on PBS across the country and brings the country’s prominent musicians to the public.

When Ehrlich first joined the “In Performance” team in 2010 to produce the broadcast of “A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Movement,” D.C. was hit with a blizzard the day before the scheduled show day. When a representative from the White House called Delan to cancel the show due to safety concerns, Ehrlich figured out how to put the show up a day early, even though many of the scheduled performers weren’t yet in town and those who were had not rehearsed.

“That was a huge, huge risk to take,” Santelli said. “And it turned out unbelievable. That takes courage, understanding and self-confidence. I’ve been a believer ever since.”

Among those who performed that miraculous evening was Dylan. “I don’t know that he would have come across town in the snow for somebody else,” Delan said. “I escorted Bob through security, through the blizzard, and the first thing he did when we walked into the White House is take his gloved hand and give Ken a fist bump.”

Since that first concert in 2010, Ehrlich has worked on a number of other events at the White House, most recently November 2014’s “A Salute to the Troops,” which featured Mary J. Blige, Common, John Fogerty and Willie Nelson, as well as active duty service members.

His peers say that Ehrlich is perfect for producing events in the nation’s most hallowed site. “He’s very conscious of being a docent for the nation for important culture at the White House,” Delan said, adding that Ehrlich understands “the sanctity and specialness and privilege of being at the White House, and therefore representing for Americans being at the White House, and trying to bring that to them.”

Ehrlich’s contributions have been noticed by none other than President Barack Obama himself. In rehearsals for 2012’s “Red, White and Blues” White House performance, which featured B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and Gary Clark Jr., among others, the president slipped into Jagger’s Sunday afternoon rehearsal and watched for more than an hour.

“I’ve never seen a president do that,” said Delan, who has worked with a handful of sitting presidents in his time at WETA. “That’s a Ken rehearsal. That’s a place that (President Obama) was comfortable coming and visiting. And he hung for a long time…. It’s very clear that the president and first lady love him. I watch that interaction and they are genuinely fond of him. They love his nights and his are always special. They are very aware of Ken and what he brings.”