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How Producer Ken Ehrlich Makes Grammy Telecast Sing

Ken Ehrlich wears many hats but isn't a one-man band

Exec-producing the Grammys requires a complex collaboration of diverse minds. Let’s run down some of the key players.

  • There’s Ken Ehrlich, the experienced field general able to marshal all kinds of disparate forces.
  • In addition, there’s Ken Ehrlich, the passionate musicologist with an encyclopedic memory and the Rolodex that won’t quit.
  • Also joining the braintrust is idea man Ken Ehrlich, who has never found a box so big that he couldn’t think outside of it.
  • And we shouldn’t forget the nurturing performance coach who is able to bring the absolute best out of musicians of all stripes. That person’s name? Answer soon …
  • It’s Ken Ehrlich.

Ehrlich, by the way, would be the first to celebrate all the other people besides himselves that have elevated the annual Grammycast into a cultural touchstone.

But those colleagues marvel at the many different roles played by Ehrlich, who has had his hand in more than 20 Grammy broadcasts dating back 30 years.

“Let’s put it this way — I don’t think you can go to school for it,” says National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president Neil Portnow.

Portnow begins explaining Ehrlich’s unique Grammy skill set by emphasizing how the veteran executive producer is in tune, figuratively and nearly literally.

“In his younger days, he played piano and was quite musical,” Portnow says. “He has a tremendous wealth of knowledge about music from a historical perspective, so he’s familiar with many, many different genres and styles of music — different eras, from different geographical locations.

“He is always listening to music, going to shows, going to concerts. He keeps himself up to date and has for many years. … He’s got seemingly boundless energy, not only mentally and emotionally but physically. This particular kind of project is very taxing and requires all of that.”

It’s what one might call his sophisticated enthusiasm that has enabled Ehrlich to engineer so many signature Grammy moments.

“You can have a conversation with Ken about the weather or the car that he’s driving, and you’ll get enthusiasm,” Portnow says, “but when you talk about music and shows and work that he does, you get a twinkle of the eye and an acceleration of the heartbeat and an enthusiasm that is palpable.”

Jack Sussman, CBS exec veep of specials, music and live events, says: “There is no one better, when they get talent on the stage, at getting the best possible performances in that moment in time. Ken has a truly extraordinary sense of how to put together artists who you might never think would make sense into those amazing performances that you would only see on the Grammy stage.”

Ehrlich makes it sound easy. “I ask them to do something that they hadn’t done before. And for whatever reason, there’s a reasonable comfort factor with, ‘Hey the Grammys are going to do you right; you don’t have to worry.’” But Ehrlich is the reason those artists don’t worry. He’s done it so well, so long, they figure, he must know what he’s doing. And, as it happens, he does.

“What people don’t understand is: The Grammys are dependably entertaining,” says John Mayer, who’s known Ehrlich since he performed on the 2003 Grammys at Madison Square Garden. “People might say ‘Oh, it’s boring, it’s boring.’ No. You think it’s boring because it’s dependably entertaining. I find dependable entertainment very entertaining. Ken Ehrlich believes in dependable entertainment.”

Though his involvement in the Grammys doesn’t go all the way back to when Pierre Cossette acquired the rights and put together the first live broadcast in 1971, Ehrlich has been witness to the growth of the show in both duration and scope.

When he started working on the show, it was about 10 performances and 24 award presentations. He’s reversed that ratio; now there are about two dozen performers, and 10 awards presented on air.

“The show was a two-hour show that was done the first several years at the Shrine, which had 6,000 people as opposed to Staples,” Ehrlich says. “Now we’re 3½ hours. The production has just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger.”

To support — and refresh — that kind of massive production, year after year, the Grammys have taken advantage of Ehrlich and his seemingly bottomless network of contacts.

“Obviously, everybody begins somewhere, but through the career he’s had, he’s met a lot of people and worked with a lot of people along the way,” Portnow says. “Whether it’s the artists themselves, managers, label folks, publishers, promoters, attorneys — you name it, Ken has a very extensive group of people that he knows and that know him.”

Ehrlich’s passion for performance has served him well through the years. The Grammys telecast is a parade of countless interlocking forces, all of which have to somehow, almost miraculously, coalesce.

“At the end of the day, you still need to be a great live event television producer,” Sussman says. “Lots of people can produce events, but ultimately in our business, you have to go into it thinking that you’re maintaining the integrity of the brand you’re working with.”

“When you watch the Grammys, you’re not watching a music video,” Sussman says. “And you’re not watching what an artist did for the 27th time on his tour.

“If you look back, it’s not disputed,” says Sussman. “He’s helped create what the Grammys are known for today.”
For Ehrlich, though, it comes down to a simple core mission.

“For me it always does start with the music,” he says.

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