“What time is it?” is a question Prince fans have been asking one another, and not just because they’ve got Morris Day on their minds. A re-broadcast of “Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince” was hastily scheduled for Saturday after the original airing of the special Tuesday won the ratings race for the night, to the surprise of many. (The answer to that musical question, by the way, for anyone who may be reading this before the rerun, is 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 central.)
Reaction to the first broadcast was wildly enthusiastic among most viewers. “It seemed to strike a chord with people,” says executive producer Ken Ehrlich, “and more than one person pointed out how refreshing it was to see a live audience, as opposed to one more couch-and-guitar number (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It did well for the network, which always helps.” The show was filmed before the coronavirus pandemic shut-downs, of course, a couple of nights after the Grammys (which Ehrlich also executive-produced — this year, celebrating his 40th anniversary doing that).
Variety picked his brain about what went into well-received performances by the Foo Fighters, Miguel, Susanna Hoffs and Chris Martin, H.E.R., Gary Clark Jr., St. Vincent, Mavis Staples and others… and his relief at having harmoniously navigated the waters of a show that had so many past Prince proteges and collaborators sharing the stage for the all-star finale of “Baby, I’m a Star.”
VARIETY: Was CBS keeping a slot in reserve for a repeat Saturday night, and waiting to see if it did well Tuesday?
EHRLICH: Not that I knew of. If they were, they didn’t tell me about it. This happened once before, with the Beatles show (“The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles”).That was the precedent, where they aired it a second time as well, so they had some numbers to at least reference. We got a lot of promotion with the Beatles show. I don’t think we got a lot of promotion with this show. I think there are a couple of natural reasons, one of which was because of that three-network sweep last weekend with the Global Citizen show (“One World: Together at Home”), whatever promotion that I was going to get over the weekend on CBS didn’t start until Sunday, and the show was Tuesday. But virally, it did very well, and I think now a lot more people know about it than knew about it before it went on the air.
What were highlights for you of producing the show?
There are three or four things that come to mind quickly. I didn’t call this show “Let’s Go Crazy” until I knew what we were going to do with Gary (Clark Jr.) and Gabby (aka H.E.R.). I thought that could be the centerpiece that could kick the show off, but you never know until you do it. It lived up to what I had hoped it would be, and then it was obvious. Not that either of those two artists was the best known artist on the show, but it got the audience up and they stayed up on their feet for 90% of the show. It was one of those magical nights where television did not get in the way of what was happening on stage.
Foo Fighters did both “Darling Nikki” and “Pop Life” at the taping, “Nikki” was the one that made the telecast, but Dave Grohl said they hadn’t done “Nikki” in concert in a lot of years, even though it’s their best known cover. He made it sound like it was an afterthought when he introduced it.
I think the first time I talked to him, we talked about “Darling Nikki,” and then he moved to “Pop Life.” I’m not even sure why. I liked their “Pop Life” a lot. But we all know what the Foo Fighters are and what they could do. And I knew that if they tore into “Darling Nikki,” they were going to kill that. During the rehearsal, I think I said to Dave, “You know what? Just run ‘Darling Nikki’ once, just for me.” And he laughed and turned around to Taylor (Hawkins) and it was like, “Ah, f—, let’s humor him.” And as soon as we ran it once, he got it. He didn’t need any help from me. And I said, “I want to do both of those numbers tonight. I’m not going to tell you that both of ‘em are going to wind up in the show, because they probably won’t. But I’d love to be able to make a choice.” “Pop Life” now is up on CBS All Access and grammy.com. If there was a meter in my brain about what the high point of the show is, dynamically and excitement-wise, that’s it. It peaked there. That comes a little over an hour in, if I recall, just after the mid-point of the show. I probably planned that purposefully, because you try and do something exciting after you cross the hour.
Chris Martin and Susanna Hoffs together acoustically was another highlight for a lot of people.
Every time I work with Chris, it’s like, just stay out of his lane and let him (make the decisions). I don’t want to say he’s one of my rep company, but he’s easy to talk to. I said to him, “I’d love for you to do the Prince show. Do you have any thoughts about what you want to do?” I honestly don’t remember if it was him or me, but “Manic Monday” came out of that conversation. He said, “Can I just do it with Susanna?” I said, “Do you want to use Sheila (E. and her band), too?” He said, “No, just me and her.” It was the opposite of “Darling Nikki.” It was the quietest moment in the show, and one of the sweetest. These tribute shows are about looking back (with faithful renditions) but also not being afraid to embrace the guy who says, “I’m going to do ‘Manic Monday,’ but I’m just going to do it with my piano and it’s not going to really have tempo.”
That was one of the few moments without a band. Sheila E.’s big band did the first three quarters of the show, and then the Revolution took their place as the band for the last stretch. Was it easy balancing the interests of different people who were part of the Prince inner circle?
Prince was not an easy master. And in the course of his career, he fell in love and out of love with a number of different groups, or artists and musicians that worked with him. So one of the most tricky things to navigate, in all honesty — and I don’t think anyone would have a problem with me saying it — was trying to make sure that Sheila and the Revolution got along. We didn’t have any problem with the Time; that was different. But it was tricky, because both of them claimed Prince. And rightfully so, because they both had long histories with him. What I want to say is that the people that made that happen and kept it together were Terry (Lewis) and Jimmy (Jam). They had relationships with both of ‘em and they helped navigate the kind of straits of what probably was a reasonably loose — and you could argue not necessarily the most amazing — “Baby I’m a Star” you’ve ever seen, but at least it had those folks on stage together. And that was one of the goals that we had. And frankly, Sheila wanted that too, and I think Wendy and Lisa did too. They all did; everybody wanted it.
But it kind of took me back to the straits of Simon and Garfunkel… (Ehrlich famously worked to alleviate tension between that duo as they reunited on the 2003 Grammys after a long time apart.) I’ve done a few of those over my life, where I set out on a course that wasn’t the easiest, and I think probably eight out of 10 times I made it work. I didn’t make it work too well with Luther Vandross and Anita Baker — not that we’re talking about that. They hated each other. That was a duet that I wanted to do a long time ago on the Grammys (in 2003), and man, they were going to kill each other. But that’s another story!
A few days before the first airing of this special, we started to see news stories about how Apollonia was taking to social media to tear into Sheila E. in a major way. Obviously the timing had to do with Sheila having a high profile on this special. Hardcore Prince fans take a big interest in which of the people he worked with naturally align with others, or don’t.
Prince was… not divisive — that’s not the word I want to use — but yeah, he had different camps, like any artist, but especially an artist like him who evolved over a number of years. For probably the people that were with him at one point in his life, it’s very easy to say, “Well, those were his great years; after that, he was nothing.” Or people who came later said, “God, he got better, and oh, that early stuff was s—!” Not too many said that, come to think of it. But I don’t even think I saw any of the Apollonia stuff until either a day or two before the show. And then I thought, “Oh, God.” I’ve gotten reasonably good at looking at (controversies flaring up) and trying to discern whether or not things are going to blow up or whether they’re just gonna sit there and die. I was wrong about Ariana Grande last year. [Laughs.] But this turned out to be a blip.
Who else stood out to you as you worked with different artists?
I could talk nicely about pretty much everyone on the show. Miguel — I don’t want to say he surprised me, because I’ve had him on a few shows, but every time I do… He’s a great mimic, and there’s something to be said for that. Man, he worked on that number. When I saw him at rehearsal, I thought he was incredible, and I wound up moving him up in the show; I think I originally had him later. And he probably channeled Prince, in terms of being true to Prince, as well as anybody on that show.
Of course, I’m in love with Misty Copeland. Obviously I had booked her for the Sunday show (the Grammys), and they came to me and said, “You know…” I didn’t know that she had toured with him. And that’s what we thought about putting her with Gabby, with H.E.R.
And Usher was great. I keep forgetting because physically he wasn’t there on Tuesday (his medley on “Let’s Go Crazy” is carried over from the Grammy telecast), but God, I’ve always thought that he was probably one of the really great performers of this generation.
St. Vincent is a big enough star, but maybe a little less familiar to much of the audience than an Usher or Foo Fighters. But there’s a singularly vivid quality about her, and a weird one, to put it simply, that really fits in with the Prince ethos in a way that was different from anyone else on the show.
Exactly. I mean, that’s really why I booked her. It had little to do with her name value, though I don’t want to devalue that. But I don’t think I could have done that show without her or someone like her… I don’t think there could have been a more perfect person. First of all, it was a perfect song, and that came from her. She said, “I want to do ‘Controversy,’” and I said, “Thank you for thinking of what I hadn’t thought of.”
People loved Philip Bailey. Earth Wind and Fire was one of two artists on the show that predate Prince. Of course Mavis Staples worked with him later. But EWF is the one heritage act that people don’t necessarily associate with Prince.
Yeah, and he loved them. I think Chantel (Sausedo) maybe thought of that booking. I don’t even think you’d call “Adore” a deep cut, but it’s deeper, and I didn’t have anything like it on the show. It was natural and beautiful and fit in so well. When I went online and looked at some things, there were some people that thought that was the best number in the show.
Common added a rap to “Sign of the Times,” which is a risky thing to do, but obviously he’s pulled off that kind of thing before.
He’s one of my go-to guys. That was the one we thought we could versify a little bit. He’s another one I love working with. You learn after a number of years who you can talk to, and the manager or publicist will get out of the way and just say, “Okay, you and the artist need to talk.” “Okay, that’s what I want to do. Thank you for suggesting what I wanted to do.” And of course, I had him on the Sunday (Grammys) show and he was great there because we did “I Sing the Body Electric” (from “Fame”) which was written at least in the late ‘70s, I think probably before Sugar Hill, so there was no hip-hop in “Fame.” It’s the one change I made in that number to try and contemporize it a little bit, and he got it right away and showed up with the rap written and ready to go. He loves what he does. You can see the joy about doing these things. God, I love working with people like that, I really do.
Somehow you squeezed a four- or five-hour taping into two hours of TV.
I trimmed a few of the packages and got about seven or eight minutes out that way, and then the rest of it really came tightening some of the songs, which I never like doing, but it’s preferable (to cutting entire songs). I gave several, if not all, of the artists a haircut, but I didn’t scalp ‘em. Those are the choices when you get into an edit room with a show like this. The easy way out is to say, “Well, that one wasn’t that great,” but this one, there was no doubt that I wanted to try and keep almost everything. The only two things that didn’t wind up on the show were “Pop Life” and “Mountains,” which the Revolution did, and I just couldn’t find a place for it. “Mountains,” by the way, also is on CBS All Access (and Grammy.com). But everything else, it was like a verse-chorus here or there. Prince wasn’t that efficient sometimes with songs, so I could take a a 16-bar intro and trim it down to 8, and nobody got hurt, even if they got bruised. By the way, normally, what’ll happen is, I’ll get some kick from some artists saying, “You can’t do that to my song.” And on this one, I don’t think anybody came after me. I think they understood.
With Morris Day and the Time, an act most people feel they know intimately haven’t seen in a while, the audience might feel a little bit nervous about whether those signature moves will look rusty, and then when they make it feel just like the ’80s, it’s a relief.
With an act like that, and I’ve seen it happen over the years with a number of acts. It’s like you push the button, and they go automatic. And honestly, I think all of the acts on that show were helped by the adoration of the audience. The crowd spurred them on and in turn they fed it back. And I loved seeing Jimmy (Jam) and Terry (Lewis) there, because they were into it. I’ve known Jimmy for a long time, but I don’t really know him as an artist, as a performer; I know him as a producer. So to see the two of them up there, doing the steps and having big grins on their faces, it was like, this is what they were meant to do.
You need some gravity for “Purple Rain” if you’re going to have that as a penultimate number. Was Mavis Staples an automatic for that?
She was an automatic, but it was scary, because in rehearsal, she was good but I think she was just starting to feel it. I knew it was the right booking, but I think I crossed my fingers a little bit. In rehearsal she was good, but I think she was just feeling it. And then, on show night, she got stronger as it went along. What I didn’t see that she knew about herself was that she was getting herself up to it — that she didn’t want to give it all away in the first verse-chorus. She was saving it. And that’s what a great artist who knows herself can do, and she did that and she delivered.