SCOTT SIMON, host:
The Grammy Awards will be given out tomorrow night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It will be the 50th anniversary of the Grammys. They may be the most polished awards show of any this year, because the Writers Guild of America has agreed to let its members work on the show, even as its strike against motion picture and television producers continues. Since 1980, the Grammy Awards have been produced by Ken Ehrlich, an acclaimed Hollywood producer. He's written a book about the awards and the show, "At the Grammys: Behind the Scenes at Music's Biggest Night." Ken Ehrlich joins us from NPR West.
Ken, good to talk to you again.
Mr. KEN EHRLICH (Producer): It's good to talk to you, Scott.
SIMON: This is a night in which people in the music industry say hang the demographics and just get all different kind of people there on stage as equals.
Mr. EHRLICH: Yeah, I don't know that we quite hang the demographics, but we put them somewhere mid-space. You know, obviously it's important to us to attract as large an audience as possible, but the fact of the matter is that the academy has such a wide berth in terms of the music that it recognizes that, you know, we feel it's our mandate to go farther and a little wider than certainly the charts acknowledge.
SIMON: What are some of the most unexpected maybe parings that worked so well as far as you're concerned?
Mr. EHRLICH: Several years ago we did a thing where we put Dave Grohl together with Chick Corea, neither of whom had ever heard of the other one until we suggested it, and it turned out to be a pretty wonderful pairing because there was this kind of discovery that happened in rehearsal that continued to the stage.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: You have a story in the book where you talk about being summoned to Michael Jackson's hotel room in 1988.
Mr. EHRLICH: After our rehearsal, we got a call saying come over to the hotel. And here he was in this duplex, Trump Towers, whatever it was, and he wanted to see the tape. He asked us to bring a tape of the rehearsal. So we showed him the tape and as we were getting up to leave, his - the choreographer, Michael whispered something to him, and he whispered something back. And as we were going down the hall, I said, so, you know, this is the night before the Grammys, this is Michael in his prime. What's he gonna do tonight? And the choreographer just looked at me and he said, there's this little four foot square of dance floor that he has there. He will spend at least most of the night just standing there in front of a mirror practicing his dance moves.
SIMON: I made a note going through your book of the nominees for best album, and almost a random year, 1995 - Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt, Seal, and the Three Tenors. Now, all great and gifted performers. Why should they be competing against each other in the same category?
Mr. EHRLICH: They have various committees that sit there and basically listen to everything. One of the things that strikes them is that they look for diversity. They don't want to just follow the charts. Granted, there's a vote of members that says, okay, this one may have been the top selling, or this one may have finished number three, but geez, don't you think it's time we did something for that one? Or isn't this an incredible accomplishment that should be recognized this year with an album of the year nomination?
SIMON: I know you know the answer to this, but I'm gonna ask our audience to pause for just a moment and ask themselves who they think won in that company of five - Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt, Seal, or the Three Tenors? Tony Bennett.
Mr. EHRLICH: Yeah, yeah.
SIMON: The 2001 Grammys, one of the most famous moments in Grammy history, the duet between Eminem and Elton John.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: Remind us of how controversial it was to have Eminem even show up at those ceremonies.
Mr. EHRLICH: We've come a long way, but there are certain artists that have, you know, we've have to cajole and try and bring into our family, and sometimes it's not easy. Eminem was one of those artists. We were kind of looking for a hook that would bring him into the show, and as it turned out both he and Elton John are on the same label, and I'd worked with Elton a number of times, so there was a comfort factor there.
And it was not hard. The easiest part of it all was just going to Elton and saying this is what we want to do after Eminem had said that yes, he thought it would be great. You know, and here was this guy whose lyrics were clearly homophobic, if not in intent, in execution. It was certainly newsworthy, but more than newsworthy I think the performance was really pretty remarkable. You know, here were these two guys that, you know, and the song itself, "Stand," which is just an extremely emotional song, and Elton did a great job of the singing part of it and Eminem told the story, and at the end, you know, they came together and embraced on stage, and it was pretty emotional.
(Soundbite of song, "Stand")
SIMON: Was it just show business?
Mr. EHRLICH: At that moment?
Mr. EHRLICH: I don't...
SIMON: Because it's important culturally to a lot of people who will talk about that. It was at once a signal that maybe Eminem wasn't so bad and also a signal that Elton John was open to new music.
Mr. EHRLICH: I can't really speak for the Eminem side, but Elton just has a great deal of respect for artists just based on their artistic achievement and who they are and what they are.
SIMON: Let me ask you about 1998. And you came, I think you were even on your knees with a special request to Aretha Franklin.
Mr. EHRLICH: Yeah, she had agreed to come in and do the show, and we had booked her, actually, to do a segment. There was a second Blues Brothers movie and she was gonna do something, I think with Danny Aykroyd. So she was scheduled to do that a little later in the show. And that afternoon we had rehearsed with Pavarotti, Luciano Pavarotti. He didn't do much rehearsing, but I'm kind of used to that. They save it for the show, especially opera singers. He was gonna sing "Nessun Dorma," which was, you know, one of his real signature pieces.
Mr. EHRLICH: So anyway, we're on the air, the show's on the air. We were in New York, so it was 8:00 o'clock. So this was maybe a quarter after, twenty after 8:00, and I got a call, to call this number, please, right away. Unusual on the air, and I called and it was Luciano, and he said I am sick, I cannot sing tonight. I will sing for you next year. And I basically said that's really good. I'm not sure what I should do now.
So I got off the phone and I remembered that two nights before she had sung "Nessun Dorma" that night for Pavarotti. So I ran up three flights of stairs, I took Phil Ramone, who's a great producer and has done a lot of work with her, and so we just said, you know, we have a problem, how would you like to sing twice tonight? She looked at me funny for a minute and then I said no Pavarotti. I can give you "Nessun Dorma" if you want it. And she looked and said, I'm game.
And we went down, we rushed down, we got a boom box, we had in those days a cassette of the rehearsal, and Pavarotti's conductor was there, even though Luciano wasn't, so the conductor came up and worked with Aretha for about, I don't know, I mean she went down and did the Blues Brothers thing, then came back. Forty minutes later she walked on stage with me and - you know, with a 65 piece orchestra and 30 voices, three keys lower or higher, I'm not - I never remember, but I think it was three keys up from the version that she had sung it two nights before. She just - she defined diva.
(Soundbite of "Nessun Dorma")
Mr. EHRLICH: Nobody knew. I mean, you know, I mean I think I had Sting introducing her. You know, even - you know, at one point he said - I had forgotten, I hadn't even said anything to him, and about seven or eight minutes before he said, so what am I doing? What am I announcing? Well, I got a little surprise for you. Aretha Franklin's gonna do it. He said, oh my God.
SIMON: Are there people you've worked with who stand out for being nice?
Mr. EHRLICH: I can't tell you what a joy it is to work with Bonnie Raitt, to work with Paul Simon, to work with Melissa Etheridge, to work with Elvis Costello. Boy...
SIMON: This is adding up now.
Mr. EHRLICH: I think I'm in trouble now because I'm gonna leave out a lot of people. Generally, professionally, I have overwhelmingly positive experiences with talent. It's just collaborative, and I hope I say this the right way. My background's music. I grew up playing the piano. I was never good enough to do what any of these people do, or most of them, anyway. And so my way of presenting music is basically through them, so I'm passionate about what I do. I really try and be collaborative.
You know, I will ask them to stretch. I'll ask them to do things that other people don't ask them to do because I don't have any stake in it other than trying to get a great performance. I'm not on their payroll, so I don't have to say yes to them, but on the other hand, you know, I think that most of them think that, you know, we're on the same path.
SIMON: Ken Ehrlich, long-time executive producer of the Grammy Awards, which will be broadcast tomorrow on CBS. He's author of the book "At the Grammys: Behind the Scenes at Music's Biggest Night." Ken, thanks so much.
Mr. EHRLICH: Thank you, Scott.
(Soundbite of "Nessun Dorma")