Ken Ehrlich on 40 Years of Grammys: ‘When They Weren’t Calling Me A–hole, They Called Me the Energizer Bunny’

Ken Ehrlich Grammys Award Show Producer
Courtesy of Ken Ehrlich

To shake Ken Ehrlich’s hand is to know that you are no more than two degrees of separation from just about any living pop, rock, R&B, country, hip-hop or gospel musician of note — and more than a few who are no longer with us. They, or at least someone close to them, have all passed across his stages and telecasts since the 1970s, when he started his TV career as a producer for “Soundstage” and “Midnight Special,” before making the fateful leap in 1980 to become executive producer of the Grammy Awards, a position he’s held for 39 of the past 40 years. (More on that lone gap year, later.) He’s not retiring from television, but on Jan. 26, he’s helming his last “music’s biggest night” — an evening that’s going to seem smaller without popular music’s greatest Rolodex, and one of its greatest raconteurs, guiding the ship.

To commemorate his 40th anniversary as captain, Variety had its own “Grammy moment” with Ehrlich, sitting down in his office to talk about his tenure as music television’s most storied name. Although that name may be leaving the Grammys credit roll after this year, he plans to still keep as full a roster of specials as possible. To riff on a few of the songs that were up for record of the year when he took over the show in 1980: Like Kenny Rogers, he’s been a gambler; unlike Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, he will be brought flowers; as the Doobie Brothers might say, only a fool would believe this means retirement; and like Gloria Gaynor, he will, well, you know.

You’re not done, but this is a point at which you’re being asked to assess an entire career, and not just the 40 years of Grammys.

I’ve loved every bit of it. It’s been hard, not easy. I vacillate between thinking I’m overappreciated and underappreciated, but don’t we all? I don’t have any regrets. I’m not a mogul. I ain’t Mark Burnett. I’m not even Simon Cowell. But I’d much rather have done what I did, because I was in the trenches. I love making television. I don’t like selling it.

This past year, you produced a fairly insane number of shows — an Elvis
tribute, an Aretha Franklin tribute, a Motown tribute, a Pentatonix Christmas special, your annual Global Citizen Festival in Central Park … and, obviously, the Grammys. How is that manageable?

It was an unusual year. There were seven or eight shows in that period from August to March 2019. Normally in that period, it’s five shows. But, for instance, Aretha died, and Live Nation was going to do something and that fell apart, so Clive [Davis] came to me.  … We always have the post-Grammy show, and so Motown fell into that. Just the idea of doing two shows back to back — you do arguably the biggest show on television on Sunday night, and then two nights later you’re taping a two-hour special. …  There’s a part of me that thinks that I just need to keep proving, if to no one else but myself, that I can still do it.

I don’t know if you noticed: I’m not a kid. But I have adrenaline. I love the fact that when I walk around a building, even now, I’m usually in the front of the line, and the people are trailing after me. I know if I look back, they would be looking at each other and saying, “What the f— is he trying to prove?” I don’t know. I don’t find it hard to do what I do, or I don’t let it feel that way. I have a great support group of people that work with us, particularly [writer] David [Wild], [booker] Chantel [Sausedo] and [producer] Ron [Basile], and I think they’re probably able to temper some of the excesses that I exhibit under certain circumstances. I mean, the juices flow. I’m not ready to quit. I think I’d probably shrivel or wither if I did. So I want to keep working; I want to keep doing stuff. I don’t know what at this point, but there are at least two or three things out there that I’m looking at.

As you exit the Grammy stage, what kind of shape is it in?

There are critics, and granted, the show’s not going to get the 40 share that it got in 1979 or 1980 because there’s a lot more TV out there. But it’s still more successful than any other music awards show, and runs pretty close to the Oscars in terms of ratings. Critically, I don’t know; take your pick of who you want to read and what they say. The show continues to be successful, and I would take a certain amount of credit for the vision for the show. They’ll go with me, both on the network side and on the Academy side, more often than not.

How do you feel about the 2019 show a year later?

I was really happy, and the ratings were good. It went up to 22 million when [Nielsen] added the [live-] plus-threes in. I think part of it was that the audience had a hunger to see Brandi Carlile, to see Kacey Musgraves, to see these people that were fresh to them. And I honestly believe, as deluded as it may sound — I can say this now because I’m 40 years in, and almost out — there’s a certain segment of the audience, and it might be even bigger than I think it is, of people who don’t necessarily look at the listings to see [which superstars are on]. They know that they’re going to see things that are different on the Grammys than they see on the AMAs — let’s just be honest about it — or the other shows for that matter.

I love Miley Cyrus and what she did with Shawn Mendes [“In My Blood”]. The Camila [Cabello] opening with “Havana” was big. And I loved the Aretha tribute in the show. It’s not just about superstar artists — I was able to get Andra Day and Fantasia and Yolanda Adams on that, you know? With H.E.R., she had this song and she said, “It’s not done yet, but I really think it could be something good.” And she hadn’t done it anywhere, but she did it that night, called “Hard Place.” Together we developed that song into a performance where it was wonderful, and when these latest [2020] nominations came out, and that song was nominated for record and song of the year, that was nice.

Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” was a highlight for me. The lyric of that song is so important. And on television, especially as bare as she did it, and as dark as she did it.  … We were in a meeting and I said, “You know what I’d like to do, not the whole song, but I want to write out the lyrics to the choruses.” At first I think one of her people said, “Oh, I don’t know . …” Then we did it, and to this day when I see her, she thanks me for it. Because those lyrics, which were displayed behind her, are just so critical.

But the thing that I’m most proud of last year — really one of my favorite things I’ve done ever on the show — was that Dolly Parton segment, because it encompassed so much of a brilliant career. In that case, Dolly wanted to do a new song, and I was kind of resistant because I wanted to go with the hits. I don’t want to out her, but I don’t think she knew much about Little Big Town. She said, “Are you sure they can do this song?” “Dolly, I’m sure they can do it.” At the first rehearsal, she put her arms around me, which is always a good experience with Dolly Parton, and said, “Thank you for Little Big Town.” It was 12 minutes, which was a controversy within the Academy: “You’re not going to keep an audience!” It was the highest-rated minute-by-minute part of the show.

Which highlights come to mind as you think back through the past few years?

The Kesha number, “Praying,” I really thought was beautiful, because it was very socially relevant, because of what happened [and the #MeToo movement]. On the New York show in 2018, there were at least four moments like that. That was the year that the whole thing broke with Neil [Portnow, the Recording Academy chairman/CEO who got in hot water for suggesting that underrepresented women “step up”]. But what got lost was that it was probably the most socially relevant show that we had ever done. It was the year that Camila Cabello introduced U2 on a barge with the Statue of Liberty behind them. It was the year that Logic did his thing at the end of the show, and it was brilliant, this kid, just brash and in your face. Oh, and it was the year we opened with Kendrick Lamar on stage killing a whole bunch of people! Which was reasonably socially relevant. We had backlash from that show, that we had gone over the edge.

That desire to make the show relevant to the times has seemed stronger lately.

The best way I can explain it: From getting to know the artists that we work with — who I’m very careful to say are not my friends, but I like working with them — what I’ve learned is that not all of them, but many of them, particularly younger artists today, are incredibly aware.  … The artists I like working with have always had this sense that they are more than music and lyrics. And I felt that, whether it’s right or wrong, it was a mandate of the Academy, and thus the show, to allow at least freedom of speech by artists who wanted to express themselves, primarily but not exclusively through their music.

“Same Love,” where we married 30 couples of all persuasions, I’m very proud of that. The whole idea for it came from my daughter, who’s a lesbian. When I told her Macklemore & Ryan Lewis [had been booked], she said, “Oh, you’re gonna do ‘Same Love’? You know, kids go to concerts and get engaged to that song.” So I thought, OK, engaged — maybe we could marry some people. There was a Katy Perry song called “By the Grace of God,” which was about violence against women in particular, and I set it up with a woman named Brooke Axtell, who was a survivor of campus rape. This was during a time when there was a major program in the Obama administration called It’s on Us to try and call attention to the serious problem of rape on college campuses.

Let’s take it from another angle. I actually grew up in the ’50s. I don’t like to admit that, so I say the ’60s, but I was a teenager in the ’50s. I went from the early days of rock ’n’ roll — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the doo-woppers, all of that stuff I loved — to the ’60s and Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and the whole singer-songwriter, protest movement, and I loved that. I was in Chicago for the ’68 [Democratic] convention, in Lincoln Park, where my wife and I got gassed. So I’ve always felt, not that the show should rest on that, but if music touches us in so many different ways — it makes us happy, all the clichés — it also makes us think. Can I say for all 40 of these years, that’s been important to me? Probably not. I probably spent the first X number of years thinking, “Yeah, I’m just gonna put some great music on.” And I still want to make people clap and cry.

I don’t know that the social aspect of it crept in until I started seeing more of it after we got to the millennials. The early years of my reign, if that’s what you want to call it, were the ’80s and Wall Street and all this other s—, so I probably bought into some of that. My wife and myself never shied away from being involved with causes and philanthropy. But I think I just recognized, in the early aughts.  … Obviously you can’t hang around Bono, and you can’t hang around John Legend, Paul Simon and all these artists that I gravitated toward without recognizing the feelings and the compassion that they have for how they can use that platform to do good. So I guess probably just by association, some of that rubbed off on what I thought the show could address. And two years ago when we did this, and I’d rather not say where it came from, there was some pushback from people. “Why are the Grammys …? We just want to watch a music show and watch people sing and dance.” OK, well, I want to do more. And I had a very compatible group of people that work with us who felt the same way.

On a more mundane level: How do you approach the competition now? It seems like there used to be a rule that if you did the American Music Awards, you couldn’t do the Grammys, and that’s out the window now.

Half of my show [lineup] is going to be on the AMAs. I used to be able to ask them to resist the AMAs. When they moved to November, I don’t have any leverage anymore. I can’t deprive them of that whole Christmas market selling. I couldn’t hold the line anymore. I didn’t feel right doing it. There are artists that I will do it with. The case that I’ll make to the artist and label and manager is, pragmatically, do you want to expose that performance to an audience of 7 [million] to 8 million people, or do you want to expose it to an audience of 22 million? That’s number one. Number two is the way we do it and the care we take with it. It’s simple. It’s a Grammy moment or it’s not.

I don’t want to start a war. It’s way too late for that. But I had a conversation with the head of a major label earlier today before I talked to you. This guy, who is a friend, basically said to me, “The problem we have sometimes with the Grammys is that with the other shows, the guy will just say, ‘Yeah, you’ve won three and we’re gonna do two on the air, and we’ll do this, we’ll do that.’ I can’t do that. And I’m very happy that we still have that integrity. And I think the industry respects us for it but sure wishes that we weren’t quite so… [Laughs.] The others tell them. That’s how they get them there.

Your famous collaborations, or “Grammy moments,” are something other shows have emulated, or tried to, but usually with a little more predictability in the pairings.

The AMAs have followed me into hell time and time again with that. I look at some of the things these other shows do in trying to put [artists] together [for a performance], and all they think about is, OK, this one’s No. 3 on this chart and this one’s No. 4. I try and find out what the compatibility factor is of the artists. Do they really belong together? Those people over at that other show — [to his publicist, nearby] you’re gonna kick me — they would never think of that. They think about, “Oh yeah, Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello have a duet together. That would be great.” And by the way, it was great. Because it was already there [as an existing single, “Señorita”]. But I look at some of the other things where they try and shoehorn one artist with another artist … I guess I’m bitter. [Laughs.]

The two shows you famously worked on before the Grammys, “Soundstage” and “Midnight Special,” represented different sides of music television — the high-minded, and the highly commercial — that you were able to bring into the Grammys.

Well, they did. That’s where the Grammy moments were really born. When we started “Soundstage,” I wanted the show to always feature two artists, if it’s going to be two artists, I need something in the middle. We had no money and there were no hosts, so what do you do? What I started doing was trying to get the two artists to do something together. It’s that simple! It was no f—ing light went on and said [this is the future]. For example, Mose Alison and Tom Waits split a show. And then I actually did start booking people that I thought were compatible, and it became a thing. “Midnight Special,” I was only there for a year, and it was a rather mixed year. But the ones I’m most proud of — I put Van Morrison together with George Benson, Santana, Dr. John and Etta James. I did a show with Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Jesse Winchester. They were really extensions of “Soundstage” on NBC at 12:30 on Friday nights.

In the early years of the Grammys, even though the stakes were just as high, I could be more adventurous. I don’t think I went more than two or three years without a gospel segment, because I love traditional black gospel music. And then the stakes got higher, the contracts got bigger, the pressure got more. But there are still risks that we take on the Grammys. One thing that I really do appreciate about this TV committee that I work with is that when I do come up with some of these things, they’ll support them. I can see, again, when I looked at H.E.R. last year — not that H.E.R. is Sun Ra Arkestra, but still, she’s a different drummer.

Are you spending a lot of time thinking about the 40-year milestone going into this year’s show?

There is a lot of that. I have to confess, it’s a milestone that not many people can say they’ve reached. I guess I can say this: Over the years, there have been countless times when they wanted to get rid of me, and I wouldn’t go away. And it was never because of the ratings, or we need a change. It was more related, in all honesty, probably to my personality, and I pissed somebody off.  I’ve been with the Grammy organization for 40 years. It’s 40 years since I did my first show, but I missed a show.

What’s the backstory there?

I don’t know if I should tell the story, but I’ll let your editors decide. That was the year Pierre [Cossette, then-producer] fired me. Michael Jackson was on the show, and Pierre came up on stage [when] I was in the middle of a whole thing with Michael. He was standing there next to me, and with Michael, you needed to be with Michael. Honestly, either I didn’t see Pierre or I didn’t pay any attention to him. He didn’t say a word about it, but I knew he was pissed, because he was pouting. So we finished the show, and he didn’t say a word. About a week after the show, he called and said, “Come on Ken, let’s have lunch.” At lunch he said to me, “I just want you to know that next year I’m going to do the show, but you’re not. You’ll be back the year after, but you’re going to take a year off.” I said, “Pierre, the ratings were great! We had Michael Jackson. I don’t understand — what?” And he said, “You were disrespectful to me, and I’m not over it. So you go into the penalty box for a year.” And I did.

[Former NARAS head] Mike Greene tried to get rid of me for years. There was always a lot of pressure. And there were always other producers nipping at my heels with this show. It’s not a particularly wholesome business. This is the most arrogant thing you’ll hear me say: To me, I’m there because I deliver every year, you know? Some years are better than others. I’m not proud of the 17.6 rating we had a few years ago. I’m pretty proud of most of the shows, though. It’s gotten progressively stronger over the years, because frankly, Neil [Portnow] was very supportive with regard to creating more of these Grammy moments, even at the expense of maybe the currency of the show — not much, but a little bit. But until the 2000s, I never had more than a one-year contract with the show. I had one year at a time, certainly from 1980 to at least 2000. That’s not a nice way to live.

Even though this is your last Grammys, do you think you might still do some of the Grammy tertiary shows?

We haven’t really talked about it. I believe so. There’s a real sea change with Deborah [Dugan] and with Harvey Mason, who’s the new chairman. So far, really, so good. I like them both a great deal. And there have been vague references to the future. So I don’t know — we’ll see. I’d probably like to keep doing the tribute shows and other specials like that. I’ve just been a part of this organization for so long. [Editor’s note: Hours after this story was published, the Recording Academy announced that Dugan, who was installed as the organization’s new president and CEO last August, had been placed on administrative leave.]

Some people love to hate the Grammys, but the fact is, the awards and the show are taken seriously now in a way they weren’t in the early ‘80s. When you started, there would be jokes about Toto or Christopher Cross sweeps. Does it feel more credible now?

Well, again, not to be self-aggrandizing, but I started in 1980. The year before I did the show, there was a one-year producer-director named Bob Henry — a lovely guy — who opened the show with Alicia Bridges doing “I Love the Nightlife.” But the awards, in knowing the history of the organization, were really prestigious. Sinatra was on the first televised show, and maybe from ’58, it followed pop culture pretty well — until the Beatles. And then all of a sudden when the music shifted, the people who founded the show were getting a little older. There were some great songs then, but in the ’70s, it lost its way more. Even though it recognized Stevie Wonder three years in a row [with] album of the year, and Paul Simon and “Hotel California” won. But as Irving Azoff tells me, “We wouldn’t set foot [back then].” Before I did the show, Pierre would call him again and again, and it was at a time when Irving would say, “We’ll come and do your show if you tell me if we won.” Pierre, to his credit, said, “No, we don’t do that.”

The first year that I did the show, it changed a lot: Bob Dylan doing “Gotta Serve Somebody” when he was in his gospel period; Neil and Barbra duetting on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” — a pairing that was created before they made the hit record together — were all that year. I still couldn’t get the Stones. I still couldn’t get Led Zeppelin. But the show began to become more legitimate, despite some ofthe awards.

Were there other acts that were difficult to get?

It took me 10 years to get U2 on the show. It took me 10 or 12 years to get Bruce Springsteen. Part of the reason I started to get them was because of some of the special things we did. We got Bruce because we did a Curtis Mayfield tribute. The eclecticism became the honey and the fly. The first time I met Bono, he said, “I know you … I was in a bathtub at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and I had the TV on and all of a sudden I heard Pops Staples doing ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’ And I said to myself, ‘That’s on an American TV show? What the f—’s going on there?’” And he logged it. It gained importance to the labels as well as the artistic community. It didn’t always have that.

Inevitably, there is controversy over the nominations that come out of the committee process, and those picks affect what you can book. 

The controversy about the committees [that narrow down the top nominees] and all the rest of that stuff, it hasn’t helped, but it also hasn’t devalued what the show is at all. And I don’t think it’s devalued the Recording Academy, either. But it’s made it a little more, what’s the word, quizzical. You know, the choices sometimes are, I don’t want to say they’re questionable, but there’s a lack of logic to some of them. And by the way, I have no clue. I don’t know who’s on that committee [that narrows down nominees in the top categories]. I feel this way about all committees. You’ll notice we don’t have any committees I grew up with the quotation, “A camel is a horse put together by a committee.”

You’ve said you’re not a fan of hostlessness for awards shows, right?

Did I say that? Because actually, I am. We’ve done the show several times without a host, and it’s worked out fine. I don’t think that a host is critical. But on the other hand, when you have someone like Alicia Keys or LL Cool J, or there were a couple years where Queen Latifah did it, I’m a big fan of hosts when they’re right. If you go back and look at the history of the Grammys, we [had] Billy Crystal before he went to the Oscars. I never booked a lot of comedians. I wanted people that were organic, that had some real connection to music, as opposed to just being, as Billy certainly was, a music fan. Ellen [DeGeneres] did three or four years that were terrific, but Ellen loves music; it’s a big part of her life.

In your memoir, you say you loved having Rosie O’Donnell one year, and then she came back the following year and was nasty to people, a la Ricky Gervais now. So with comedians, is that a risk?

It’s a risk that I frankly don’t like to take. I really believe that, as snarky as this world is, people tune in to see this show because they love music. And I don’t want anybody to get on stage and take shots at ’em. … Alicia had the perfect tone last year. You could tell that she revered most if not all of the people that she was talking about and interacting with. But she also was there for the fun factor.

What’s meaningful to you now?

My three grandchildren. And none of them live here. My grandson and daughter and son-in-law live in Northampton, Mass. My two granddaughters and their parents live in Birmingham, Ala. They’re now 6, 4 and 3, and I want to see them more.

In your 2007 book, “At the Grammys,” you revealed having had a quadruple bypass 12 years ago. The reflectiveness that scare put into you back then, is that something you’ve been able to carry forward?

Well, unfortunately, the warning that you get when something like that happens that you would really hope changes your lifestyle — that you become this ascetic, that you think you need to go find some guru or something, or at least change your diet — I didn’t do a lot of any of that. On the other hand, from that day on, I’ve had an appreciation of life that can only happen to someone who’s in a life-threatening situation. And I’ve never forgotten that.

I haven’t looked at that book in a long time, but hopefully it ends with the fact that three months later I did the Grammys! There were some people, not a lot, who, when they weren’t calling me “asshole,” were calling me the Energizer Bunny, because I just kept on going. And to this day, probably now that I’m more conscious of it, when it comes to my walk and my thought process, I’m still out in front, you know. Whatever happens with other things I do or not, I’m not gonna go away. I just won’t be doing this show anymore. But I have other plans and other things I want to do. I know people who are like me, and it’s easier for me to see it in them than it is in me. Paul McCartney, God, how can I compare myself to Paul McCartney? But the guy just doesn’t stop. And doesn’t need the money — let’s start there — but he loves what he does. And there are others, like Herbie Hancock, I think he’s my age or a little older (Hancock is 79; McCartney and Ehrlich, 77) … Granted, they’re performers, but I think people just have this thing inside them. I know I do.

I don’t like to self-analyze, but there’s something. Is it because my great-grandparents emigrated from Russia because the Cossacks were after them, and if they didn’t get out, they’d have been killed?  Was it because when I was 6 or 7 years old, my father gave me this little pamphlet about the Warsaw ghetto and how the Jews were killed there? Was it because I was a little height challenged — well, I still am; I haven’t grown a lot — and probably had some sort of lack of confidence, until I got to college and then became an overachiever? It’s probably all of those things. But the fact of the matter is, I love life.

After the bypass, I had an operation about six years ago, where I thought I had lung cancer but it turned out I didn’t. And my new measure of how important life is, is that I have three grandchildren under the age of 6. And I think about, how could I possibly have ever missed that? As you get older, you do reflect more. You don’t live in the past, but you do have this appreciation.

Since we moved out to Westlake Village, I get up and I look at mountains in the morning. Come on, I’m a Jewish kid from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, that lived on a street where there were houses and maybe there were four trees, you know. All of a sudden now I look across this little valley that’s across from us, and I see these ridges and I see mountains. Last fall, I saw a fire. But it’s like, God, what a wonderful thing it is to be alive, and to continue to do what you love. It kills you, sometimes. It gets you crazy. But boy, it’s good.