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Q&A: Grammys Producer Ken Ehrlich on Diversity, Predicting the Winners and Building Musical Moments

Grammys Producer Ken Ehrlich on Diversity,
Rex Shutterstock

One of the busiest men in the music biz, producer Ken Ehrlich has been putting on the Grammy Awards for more than 35 years. The producer has built a robust reputation through creating “Grammy moments,” or unlikely musical collaborations that become the talk of Twitter and the office water cooler. Ahead of this year’s Feb. 15 ceremony, Ehrlich spoke to Variety about honoring fallen musical icons, bringing “Hamilton” to the telecast and whether the music industry faces the same diversity problems that plague other corners of Hollywood.

How is this year’s show shaping up?
Every year is a little different, and every year brings its challenges. This year we’re very excited because we have some really great performances, but we’re also faced with some challenges that we haven’t had in the past, in particular the loss of some pretty significant people, artists, performers who we feel the need to in some way recognize on the show. So things keep changing.

Did things change when Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White passed away?
My personal relationship with Maurice White goes back almost 50 years. The first television show I ever did in Chicago was a show called the Marty Fay show, and Maurice at the time was Francie Lewis’ drummer, and that was when I met him. They were the house band for this TV show that we did in Chicago. So I’ve known him 47, 48 years. These are tough times. Last night I was in Las Vegas at my really good friend Rene Angele’s memorial service, and a few weeks ago I was at Natalie Cole’s service. It’s tough.

The fact of the matter is that what the Grammys are is a celebration of great music that’s come this year and we’ve got plenty of that. I’ve often said that this show is a microcosm of the world: people are born during the show, people die during the show, people celebrate during the show, people conceive children during the show. It’s like it’s own little microclimate.

How did Lady Gaga’s David Bowie tribute come together?
We had already booked Lady Gaga, and we had gone through a couple of ideas, but when this happened, it was like we were of a single mind and within a day we had talked to each other and realized that the only thing that we could do, especially given her background and her huge respect and love for David and his music, this would be something really special that she could do.
It really gelled when we added Nile Rodgers, who worked with Bowie, and he’s a friend of the show. He’s the MD for the segment. It’s going to be brilliant. I’m very excited for it.

What other big Grammy moments can we expect from the show?
For the first time ever we’re coming to Broadway to do the opening number from “Hamilton,” and it will be the first time it’s been seen on television and the first time the Grammys have gone to Broadway to do a live number from a Broadway theater.

When you look back at your long career with the Grammys, which moments stand out and make you the most proud?
As songwriters are fond of saying,they’re all my children. So it’s kind of hard to differentiate. Certainly the Prince and Beyonce moment was pretty amazing; Eminem and Elton was pretty amazing. Pink flying through the air was pretty wonderful. A few years ago when we ended the finale from “Abbey Road” with [Paul] McCartney and [Bruce] Springsteen and Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh — that was pretty amazing. Every year there are a few that stand out to me. Mick Jagger a few years ago doing the tribute to Solomon Burke that he did. The joy of this show is finding those kinds of things. This year there are a couple of things… The things that separate the Grammys from other awards shows are these moments and are the fact that probably, if you think about it, you aren’t getting confused that you’re seeing these things on other awards shows. You just know you’re going to see them on the Grammys. That’s why people tune in.

What’s your creative process like in assembling these moments?
For me it almost always starts with music. When it’s music that is nominated, the morning the nominations come out, I’ll spend a day or so just listening and seeing what kind of things stand out and what things make me think of other things. Music is…. We live in an age where nothing is really original anymore, and that’s not a criticism; rather it speaks to the evolution of music. Everything came from somewhere. What we often do when we create these moments is look for, “Where did that come from? This song is obviously related in one way or another to that song. Does it pay to bring those artists together? What about generationally? What about genre? Can I put a country artist with an R&B artist and find a common bond?”

Do you predict the winners?
I used to. It used to be kind of fun to play that game. I’m probably not bad at it, but in a way, what I really try and do is divorce myself from that horse race, because I honestly don’t want that to affect the way we build the show. I think the show exists purely on the musicality and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes people question whether we know the winners or not, which we don’t, because someone will perform and then they’ll win a Grammy. Well, that’s coincidence… I’m worried about building a three and a half hour show where musically it’s so diverse and every eight minutes or nine minutes that’s coming at you. That’s what’s exciting to me.

Huge portions of the industry are discussing diversity lately. What’s the state of diversity within the Grammys?
I certainly have grown up under a whole different set of circumstances and the music world that I live in is colorblind. I’m not a kid. When I was growing up, and when I was listening to early rock and early R&B, white kids were listening to black music. My generation was kind of the first generation where that became the dominant form of entertainment, of popular culture, which, by the way, you can’t say that about the movies. I’m not being critical of film. It’s just that it’s different. Several generations have now grown up not really looking at the color of a person’s skin but just loving what they do musically. All forms of our contemporary music are rooted in African American culture; they’re rooted in black music, they’re rooted in the blues, they’re rooted in reggae. This has such a profound affect on this country musically that I don’t think we face the same set of criticisms that other artistic disciplines do.

Pictured above: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Ken Ehrlich, LL Cool J, John Legend