A lot will be said in the days and years to come about all the amazing and unforgettable Grammy Moments that Ken Ehrlich has somehow made happen decade after decade live on the Grammy Awards. Likely, a lot of it has already been said by my longtime mentor and lifelong friend Ken himself to Chris Willman in the surrounding pages of this distinguished publication that shares a name with the precise and splendid quality Ken has consistently brought to Music’s Biggest Night for four decades — VARIETY.
As you might imagine, working on the Grammy Awards for Ken over nearly two of those decades, I have enjoyed the tremendous and enduring pleasure of sharing a variety of the moments with Ken and the rest of a team that’s become like a family — occasionally like the Manson Family, but still, a family all the same. Although I had attended many of Ken’s productions both a music fan and as a journalist for Rolling Stone, I first met Ken in April of 1994 at the grand opening of the House of Blues on Sunset while we were both waiting to see Aerosmith — who are, coincidentally, playing on this year’s Grammy show. My wife Fran and I being seated with Ken and his wife Harriett that night would ultimately play a significant part in turning me into the grateful and grizzled TV writing and producing veteran that I am today. For the record, that House of Blues was demolished not long ago, but thankfully we’re all still here livin’ on the edge.
So as to avoid stepping directly on the Boss’s toes, here are just a few alternative, notable, scattered backstage Grammy Moments from my times to date toiling in the TV trenches alongside Ken:
1. Standing onstage at the Grammy Awards, and having my lifelong musical hero Stevie Wonder tell Ken and I, “You guys are looking good” — as only Stevie ever could … or ever would.
2. Watching with a lot of awe and a little concern as Ken negotiated a Simon & Garfunkel reunion in 2003, like some kind of special musical envoy to Madison Square Garden, trying his best to broker some measure of harmony and peace. Having grown up with my mom playing the duo’s 8-track tapes while carpooling me, this was a dream come true. Sure, the Sound of Silence may have been broken by raised voices a few times in the process. Yet by the end, the tension lifted and everyone was feeling groovy, thanks to Ken’s unique ability to get exactly what he wants and still serves as a bridge over troubled waters.
3. Sitting down with Ken and Prince — who previously only knew me as a rock critic — at Center Staging in early 2004 to discuss what would become his triumphant Grammy opening performance with Beyonce. After we finished our fascinating conversation, Prince asked Ken and I if we’d like to get a private concert for two so he could show us his vision for the performance we had just brainstormed. Not being complete idiots, we said yes enthusiastically, and so Prince and his band then treated us to the single greatest show of our lives – and perhaps the only one ever by a truly towering musical genius whom we were both technically taller than.
4. Seeing Ken sit in — rather effectively, too — on piano with a few acts, including Al Green, during rehearsals over the years, and thinking that if this whole TV thing didn’t continue working out so well for him, Ken could still make a decent living playing in roadhouses and honky-tonks. I also once heard Ken sing a duet of “That’s Life” with Usher at our Grammy Salute to Sinatra, but suffice to say, Ken should probably keep his imaginary day job at a piano.
5. The two of us standing up together for the ultimate stand up guy — our longtime host and friend LL Cool J — when he surprisingly but quite rightly wanted to add a prayer for Whitney Houston as part of his first-ever Grammy monologue that we totally re-wrote in the wake of Whitney’s tragic passing. The longer I am in live television, the more I believe in the power of prayer.
6. Ken asking me where Lady Gaga was during one Grammy night, and telling him, “She’s backstage near my presenter prompter area hanging out in a Plexi-glass egg,” then hearing my own words, and thinking, thanks in part to Ken, I had somehow ended up in the exactly the right business.
7. Ken doggedly insisting on having John Legend play a recent single called “All Of Me” that had only done okay and was slipping down the charts, and telling me, “Don’t worry, that song is a smash – and it will be after our show.” And legendarily, Ken was exactly right.
8. Standing with Ken backstage and being in awe of the extraordinary talent and commitment of every Grammy host we worked with together — Jon Stewart, Queen Latifah, LL, James Corden and now Alicia Keys, a brilliant artist and talent who quite literally has grown up on the Grammy stage.
9. Ken — the hardest working man in show business since James Brown left the stage — never being too busy to see how far he is from any open White Castle Burger.
10. Leaving Staples Center after one Grammy show, and walking straight into dinner at Katsu-Ya at LA Live and finding ourselves at the bar watching the Grammy rebroadcast starting on CBS. As we downed spicy tuna rolls, Ken looked at the TV in front of us and said, “You know, this is a pretty good show.”
David Wild is a longtime contributing editor for Rolling Stone and head writer for the Grammy Awards, among other telecasts.