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Ken Ehrlich: Behind the Scenes With Grammys’ Wizard

"I’m sure there are those who’d like to see me go off into the sunset. But I’m not ready to walk away," says the producer, who added Motown, Aretha and Elvis specials to this year's Grammy load.

Ken Ehrlich Jane Ortner Education Award,
Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

For someone who already had a reputation as the hardest-working TV music producer in show business, Ken Ehrlich has lately taken it up a notch. Since last fall, on top of his usual Grammy Awards duties, he’s been at the helm for three other prime-time specials — an homage to Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special on NBC, an Aretha Franklin tribute on CBS and, for that same network, a Motown anniversary show set for Easter Sunday, April 21.

He recognizes it as an unusual flurry even by his standards. “That isn’t my normal life, believe me,” Ehrlich says. “I have those times when I wonder if I’m ever going to work again. But sometimes I wonder if those who will remain nameless even realize how much work this is,” he adds, referring to a pair of well-known executives he works with at CBS and the Recording Academy.

Watching Ehrlich at work from the wings of dress rehearsals during the run-up to the Grammys, juggling two simultaneous productions (the Motown special was also taping that week), you could see the producer remain cool and under control, even as the pressure mounted and artists, production assistants, publicists and journalists swirled around him. “I wish I could bottle that quality and sell it to Big Pharma,” he said. “I’d be a rich man.”

Ehrlich says one of his gifts is the ability to “disarm” the talent, putting them at ease. That quality was put to the test Grammy week when Ariana Grande abruptly pulled out, citing a creative disagreement with Ehrlich; Nicki Minaj piled on, tweeting that the veteran producer was “not collaborative.”

That rankled as much as any criticism he’s ever gotten. “Everybody in this business knows how collaborative I am,” he insists. “At the end of the day, I’ll stand by what’s up on that screen.”

Set to helm his 40th show next year to conclude his most recent three-year contract, Ehrlich doesn’t feel comfortable talking about the incident, but admits, “As far as I’m concerned it’s over. I knew what I had on stage that Sunday night.” The normally modest producer proceeds to cite appreciative emails from the likes of Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monae, Camila Cabello and Lady Gaga. He reads from a message sent by Diana Ross: “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to thank Berry Gordy for what he means in my life. Also, to be able to look out into the audience to all those who have been such a part of the Motown family. You are very special.”

Ehrlich has yet to watch the entire Grammys telecast, but he’s proud of what he accomplished, despite online trolling leveled at Jennifer Lopez being made the centerpiece of the Motown tribute, which will also be incorporated into the upcoming special. “We have a very good relationship with her, and she’s a dynamo as a performer,” he says. “Berry Gordy himself told me at a post-Grammy party thrown for him by Jennifer and Benny Medina that he loved what she did. That was good enough for me.”

Ehrlich maintains he’ll be manning the Grammys again next year for his 40th anniversary, but with the exits of longtime champion Les Moonves from CBS (“He was my rabbi there”) and Neil Portnow from the Recording Academy (an announcement of his successor is imminent), the producer’s future beyond that is certainly a matter for conjecture.

The Cleveland native produced his first Grammys in 1981 at Radio City Music Hall and has seen both the Recording Academy and the show grow in stature and revenue under the leadership of legendary producer Pierre Cossette and, later, the power-thirsty Michael Greene (“He was very difficult to work with”). Portnow came aboard in 2002 and proved an amenable creative partner with his lower-key, calming presence.

“It was a breath of fresh air when Neil came in,” says Ehrlich, who concedes his job is to balance the Recording Academy’s goals with TV’s demands. “I loved working with him. It was non-confrontational, and decision-making could be an issue, but at least I was appreciated. That never happened under Mike Greene, who took credit for everything. I hear they’re close to picking a successor, but I don’t know any more than you do.”

Whether he’s there or not, Ehrlich believes the future of the show that has been under his stewardship for four decades is secure. “The Grammys stand above the other music awards shows,” he says. “It’s the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA finals. The event nature of it continues to resonate. People may tune in for the awards, but these shows are all about the performances.”

Is there life after the Grammys? “I don’t know if you could get an answer from any producer to that question, especially one my age. Prior to 2000, I was working on a year-to-year contract.  Only when I threatened to walk did I start to get three-year deals.

“I recently asked Norman Lear, who is 96 years old and a good friend, ‘Can you see any signs of diminished capacity?’ and he just laughed.

“I still get a thrill out of doing this. I have grandchildren, and my wife would like me to retire, but I’m not ready to walk away. I’m sure there are those who’d like to see me go off into the sunset. But I’ve loved music since I was a kid wanting to be a DJ pilfering records from the radio library. I got to live out my dream.”