Longtime Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich has delivered his Grammy swan song (figuratively and literally), and it couldn’t have happened without … Walt Whitman. To usher out his 40-year era as the guiding light behind some of TV’s greatest musical moments, Ehrlich chose the song “I Sing the Body Electric” from the 1980 movie musical “Fame” and assembled quite the formidable choir to perform it at the January 26 ceremony: Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Ben Platt, Common and War and Treaty’s Michael and Tanya Trotter will tackle vocals, with musical accompaniment provided by Gary Clark Jr. (electric guitar), Lang Lang (piano) and The Ricky Minor Band. Reimagining the choreography was a “Fame” original: Debbie Allen.
So where exactly did Whitman, one of America’s first superstar poets, a Bob Dylan of his day, fit in? The song, written for the beloved movie musical by Michael Gore (younger brother of “It’s My Party” singer Lesley Gore) and Dean Pitchford, the co-composer behind a chunk of the ’80s soundtrack (including the song “Footloose” and the theme for the variety TV series “Solid Gold”), was inspired by the title and opening line of a poem from the Whitman masterwork “Leaves of Grass.” The idea for the tune came to Pitchford as he was heading to a dinner party.
“And on my way out the door, I hit on this line from the Walt Whitman poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” and on the walk, I wrote the whole first verse: ‘I sing the body electric, I celebrate the me yet to come, I toast to my own reunion, when I become one with the sun,” Pitchford told Carl Wiser in a 2012 interview for Songfacts, adding that he scribbled down the lyrics on toilet paper in his friend’s bathroom after arriving at the party.
And just like that, a modern classic was born, one that served as inspiration not only to the movie students at New York City’s High School of the Performing Arts, but to future generations of real-life aspiring artists.
Although Ehrlich wasn’t involved in the “Fame” movie or the 1982 to 1987 series it spawned, he’s connected to the former in a more symbolic way. The film hit theaters in 1980, the same year Ehrlich began producing the Grammy telecast, and it chronicled the on- and off-campus education of a group of aspiring talents yearning to burst through the competition and become the sort of stars the Grammys have been honoring since 1959.
Throughout the course of the film, the then-rising talents, including future “Flashdance” Grammy and Oscar winner Irene Cara, performed two songs that would be perhaps far more associated with the film in future decades. The title track was a U.K. number one and top-five U.S. single, while another, the mournful ballad “Out Here on My Own,” slid into the top 20. They were both nominated for Best Original Song at the 1981 Oscars — the first time two nominees came from the same movie — with “Fame” taking the grand prize.
“I Sing the Body Electric,” though not nearly the pop-cultural milestone that the title song of “Fame” became, enjoyed more conspicuous placement in the film. The graduating class performed it during the final scene at the commencement ceremony after completing their senior year. In addition to the significance of 1980 to both the movie and Ehrlich and the song’s finale status in both “Fame” and Ehrlich’s Grammy career, there’s another bit of parallelism in play here. If we think of 10 years producing the Grammys as equal to one year of high school, then Ehrlich’s timing was impeccable.
“I Sing the Body Electric” is about endings and beginnings, the brightness of a future that owes so much to the past: “And I’ll look back on Venus/I’ll look back on Mars/And I’ll burn with the fire/Of ten million stars/And in time and in time/We will all be stars.” Its easy to see why 2020’s Grammy nominees and the performers who participated in the Ehrlich tribute would be able to relate.
And Ehrlich, too. Though 77, like the kids at the end of “Fame,” he’s entering a new chapter of his life. His freshman-to-senior decades as Grammy producer has brought highs and lows in much the same way that the students’ stints at the High School of Performing Arts ebbed and flowed.
As Ehrlich himself explained: “I’ve loved it all my life, and it’s incredibly interdisciplinary in that it’s pop, it’s rock, it’s gospel, some R&B, and it’s classical. ‘Fame’ is about the School of the Arts in New York, and so what I’m going to do is replace the kids who graduated from the school [in the movie scene] with people that I’ve worked with over the years. If there’s anything that’s been a passion of mine, it’s about bringing people together, and this song definitely brings them together — and it’s also about the importance of music education. Everyone may not know the song when they do it, but with these performers, you’ll watch it and I hope you’ll be thinking, Jesus, the future is bright for songwriters, and for music in general.”
Speaking after the performance, Gary Clark Jr. told Variety that “I Sing the Body Electric” is “not out of my zone at all; Actually, I was inspired. I used to be one of those kids when I was a tenor in the choir singing and playing in the orchestra, so it kind of took me back home.”
As the finale of Ehrlich’s final Grammy telecast, though, “I Sing the Body Electric” was no mere dream-on-dreamer moment. It was a celebration of a job well done. He’s leaving his comfort zone with dreams realized and a legacy secured. The iconic Grammy moments he produced will live forever. With “I Sing the Body Electric,” Ehrlich went out like poetry in motion.