Producers share with PEOPLE the trials and tribulations of producing the show, and behind the scenes tales from some of the Grammy's most unforgettable moments

By Jordan Runtagh
February 02, 2017 05:20 PM
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Credit: M. Caulfield/WireImage; Dave Hogan/Getty

What do you do when a Beatle calls you at Christmas to discuss a setlist? Or you’re broadcasting live to millions and your headlining artist is nowhere to be found? Or you’re tasked with overseeing a mass wedding? Or two very powerful stars aren’t happy about being seated next to each other?

Ken Ehrlich has seen it all. The TV veteran has been producing the Grammys since 1980, helping transform the ceremony into the music industry’s most exciting—and unpredictable—event. “Sometimes you do feel like the man behind the curtain,” he says with a laugh. The 73-year-old is quick to praise his colleagues, especially key ally Jack Sussman, the EVP of Specials, Music and Live Events at CBS. “It is the biggest show in music worldwide,” says Sussman, “And our biggest challenge is: how do we top what we did last year?”

Yet they never seem to have any trouble. This year’s ceremony, airing Feb. 12 on CBS, promises to feature show-shopping performances by artists ranging from Adele, Bruno Mars, John Legend, Metallica, Alicia Keys, Maren Morris, the Weeknd and Daft Punk—all arranged by Ehrlich and his team. “I can’t do what the artists do,” he says. “But what I can do is express myself through them.”

As the countdown to the 2017 Grammys continues, Ehrlich and Sussman share with PEOPLE the trials and tribulations of producing the show, and behind the scenes tales from some of the Grammy’s most unforgettable moments.

Credit: Maury Phillips/WireImage

When do you start organizing the show each year, and what does that meeting look like?

EHRLICH: The nomination period September to September the following year. While I start thinking about it in advance, I really like to keep my head clear until September. The short list is pretty easy, from the top 10 artists that we want to have on the show. It doesn’t take a TV producer to figure that out. But honestly, [it really starts] when the nominations come out the first week in December. Then I do a pretty serious job of looking through them, to see what I might have missed, and that’s where I try to figure out what we need and how to balance the show.

SUSSMAN: The production group has no sense of who’s nominated until they hear it like everybody else does, and has no idea who wins until it gets announced on stage. So the show’s produced totally exclusive of the nominations and the awards, although you use those as the foundation to start telling your story about the year in music in a given year. And then you build from there.

EHRLICH: It’s an incredibly compressed production period, because one of the rules of the Academy is you can’t book anybody until the day of the nominations. So I’ll talk to the artists, and I’ll usually have a pretty good idea of who I’d probably want. And then it’s a scramble—Dec. 15th, the artist community clears out [for the holidays], and they don’t come back until Jan. 5 or 6. So I scramble in December to get at least those 10 acts booked and started creatively on what we want to do, but then I basically shut down—not out of choice, but I can’t do anything until after the first of the year. Then in four or five weeks the rest of the show comes together. It’s a scramble.

BEHIND THE GRAMMY MOMENT: John Legend serenades Chrissy Teigen with “All of Me” in 2014.

EHRLICH: We love John. We’ve been very involved with John since the beginning. He credits us with “All of Me,” because the song had come and gone. That year we put Chrissy in a seat about 12 rows away with a spot on her and John was on the piano. And the song became one of the biggest songs of the year after he did it—just himself on the piano. It was beautiful.

The artist collaborations are a hallmark of the Grammys. How do those come together—do they come to you or do you go to them?
EHRLICH: It actually works both ways. In the beginning it was mostly us, because artists were not necessary aware, but more and more now, the artist themselves will come and say, ‘Hey listen, will you consider…’ It’s an extremely collaborative situation—particularly with artists who are not first-timers, there’s a real dialogue. They build up a little bit of a trust with us and we trust them, and it’s intensely collaborative. That’s what makes them special. It’s not about having two artists that have big hits together, they need to fit musically.

SUSSMAN: Ken is time- and battle-tested. And he has the trust and confidence of these artists. From a best new artist nominee to a veteran multi-award winning performer, they develop an idea with him that puts them in a different place and a different style than you’ve ever seen them before. As great as Ken is, his greatest ability is probably as a psychologist. He’s ability to sit and talk with these artists and get them to buy into his idea and challenge him to do something that’s a little out of their comfort zone, live in front of 18 million people, hundreds of million people around the world, and do something new and different.

BEHIND THE GRAMMY MOMENT: Prince and Beyoncé get purple and funky in 2004.

EHRLICH: For years and years and years I would go to Prince. He did the show three or four times and I really enjoyed having him. But they weren’t automatic. There were times when I’d call him and he would kind of laugh at what I had to say. Probably the last performance was with Beyoncé and I lit that fuse with him and within 24 hours and he had a number—the number that we ultimately did on the show. He was in town and asked me to come out; he had already rehearsed the band. That’s what Prince was like!

Is it ever a struggle to book artists?

EHRLICH: It varies. The Grammys are a pretty good draw—it’s still the top of the music award shows, in my opinion. The artists want to do it—if anything they want to be at their best for the Grammys. But there are times that artists just aren’t available. I don’t know why, but this year Drake decided that he should take dates in Europe on the weekend of the Grammys, so he’s not going to be with us. We would have loved to have had him, but he chose not to be here.

BEHIND THE GRAMMY MOMENT: Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert and Madonna perform a mass Grammy wedding to “Same Love” in 2014.

EHRLICH: Not that long ago, we participated in the whole Macklemore and Ryan Lewis number, where we did 28 weddings of all different genders. I loved the song, “Same Love,” and I knew I wanted to do it on the show. My daughter’s gay and I had told her that I was going to book them and I said, “Do you have any thoughts about this?” And she said, “You know, in the gay community a lot of people go to their concerts and get engaged listening to that song with them.” So all that did was jump-start the idea of “Wait a minute, let’s do this!”

The 2017 Grammys are so soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration. How much politics is too much politics for an awards show?

EHRLICH: We’re pretty vocal about the Academy itself representing artists’ rights. I don’t think we advocate very often with these things, but we also encourage artists, whether it’s political or more social. [“Same Love”] was an advocacy position, but it wasn’t necessarily the Academy’s position. It was artists expressing artistic freedom.

BEHIND THE GRAMMY MOMENT: Eminem teams up with Elton John for an electrifying version of “Stan” in 2001.

EHRLICH: That collaboration was socially motivated as well as musically motivated. At the time Eminem was under fire for the homophobic interpretation that people took from his music. So when you think about it, what’s better than to have a very prominent out gay man perform with him. And it fit musically. Elton did a very great version of “Stan,” the musical part of it, and Eminem rapped.

Working in live television has to be pretty harrowing at times. What have been some worrying moments?

EHRLICH: There are times when someone’s not ready to go and we have to pad a minute or so. We’ll figure out something we can do. And then there are times like last year when I had to reconfigure the whole first 45 minutes of the show because, as you may recall, Rihanna dropped out and our friend Lauryn Hill decided she didn’t have to come into the building until two minutes before the Weeknd was on. That was not a fun hour of the show last year. But I have an amazing team of people.

SUSSMAN: The team that’s been assembled is so tight in what they do that when it hits the fan and somebody’s amp blows up in a commercial break and you have 90 seconds to change what you’re doing, or somebody doesn’t show up and you have to totally reconfigure the show—or Whitney Houston passes away less than 12 hours before the show’s supposed to start—you can get in a room with your key department heads, led by Ken, have a conversation about what needs to happen, and walk away without having to micro-manage every piece of it in that short period of time, knowing that all your department heads will do their job, do it flawlessly, and do it at a level that looks like you’ve been rehearsing it for a week.

BEHIND THE GRAMMY MOMENT: Justin Timberlake, Al Green, Keith Urban and Boyz II Men save the day in 2009.

EHRLICH: That was the year that Chris Brown and Rihanna both dropped out. That was a big save because we were in our dress rehearsal that day when that started happening. I was sitting in the house at my table and the calls started coming [about them having to cancel]. It was her first and then him, I think.

Fortunately I was sitting next to Justin Timberlake’s manager. He looked at me and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got a problem, I need to talk to you and Justin.’ That was maybe the first and second time I ever left a dress rehearsal. We went into a dressing room and grabbed Justin and said, ‘I need your help, what can we do?’ We thought of Al Green—we got him out of a shower at the hotel and he came over and we rehearsed after the dress and dropped that number into the show the same day.

How do you settle on the seating arrangements? Are the artist’s picky?

EHRLICH: In this 24-hour news cycle, we’re pretty aware of who’s in a fight with who, or who doesn’t like who. In reality, with everything else I have to deal with, I’d rather be as far away from that as I can be. Our seating people, that’s part of their job, to make sure we don’t have somebody stomping out when they sit down. And [the artists] all ask, they want to know where they are. That’s why over the weekend we put the seating cards out so if they’re coming in to rehearse or if they’re coming in to talk, there are no surprises.

BEHIND THE GRAMMY MOMENT: The 50th anniversary of the Beatles in America.

EHRLICH: I’m still in awe when I’m sitting in a room with [Paul] McCartney. When we did the two-hour Beatle special that we taped right after the Grammys, he agreed to come to the show and he ultimately wound up performing. One of the highlights of my life was him calling me right around Christmas and saying, “Hey Ken, you knew I was going to come, but I do want to perform. So what songs would you like me to do?” So we talked about a set list for the show.

Which artist would you still love to work with that you haven’t yet?

EHRLICH: I’ve never had the Rolling Stones at the Grammys. I loved having Mick [Jagger], the performance of the Solomon Burke song ways amazing. But there are a couple I would love to have before I hit my 40th show.