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A Grammy man’s swan song

Times Staff Writer

Grammy Awards executive producer Pierre Cossette sits behind the cherry desk in his corner office in the Beverly Hills building where he’s ridden herd over the telecast for the last 34 years.

Just four days before Sunday’s show, when you’d expect the office to be crackling with activity, it’s eerily quiet. It’s midday, but only three people are around: Cossette; his wife, Mary; and his secretary. They appear almost boxed in by vacant desks, the phones all but silent.

The aftermath, perhaps, of the Montreal native’s decision to make this year’s show his swan song?

No. His crew hasn’t mutinied -- they just headed out to set up a beachhead at Staples Center for rehearsals. Cossette, 81 but still a live wire, has stayed to talk about why the man known as the father of the Grammy Awards is calling it quits.

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Mary, his more philosophically minded half, says, “It’s time to let someone younger take over.”

It’s not, however, as though the reins are being handed over to Carson Daly. At Cossette’s side for the last 20 years have been Ken Ehrlich, a veteran producer and director of the Grammys and other entertainment specials, and co-producer John Cossette, Pierre’s son. They’ll share Pierre’s executive producer title and duties.

Pierre likes to say the timing was simply a numbers game.

“I didn’t want to go out on the 36th or the 37th show, so I would have had to wait until the 40th,” says Cossette, who received his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame earlier this week. “By then, I didn’t think I could still handle the 150 phone calls a day you get when you’re doing this.

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“There’s always somebody calling: ‘You’re putting that act on the show?’ Why isn’t my act on it -- they’ve sold 100 million records and

Looking like an avuncular combination of Billy Wilder and Johnny Grant, he’s wearing a chenille sweater, open-collar Oxford shirt, loose dark slacks and plaid golfer’s cap covering hair that’s more salt than pepper.

Queen Latifah will host Cossette’s farewell show, with musical segments to include a Ray Charles tribute with Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston; a salute to Southern rock with Tim McGraw, Gretchen Wilson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dickey Betts, Keith Urban and Elvin Bishop; and a gospel selection with Kanye West, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Mavis Staples and West protege John Legend.

An opening number with Al Green, the Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani and Eve, Los Lonely Boys, Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand will raise money to benefit victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami in Asia. The audio will be posted almost immediately and be available for downloading for 99 cents through Apple’s iTunes website.

Cossette says his own tastes in music are pretty wide-ranging -- at home (in L.A., New York or Canada) he listens to country, rap, R&B;, rock, jazz and classical. “That’s why I’ve always fought to keep the show eclectic,” he says.

In the post-Janet Jackson/Super Bowl era, networks are nervous about any show that goes out live, but not Cossette. He says the tape delay instituted for the Grammys following Jackson’s breast-baring incident last year never had to be used to bleep problem words or images.

“If we have any suspicion something like that’s going to happen, we’ll have a little talk about it with the artist,” he says. “It’s ceased to be a big concern.”

Although he’ll add “former” to his long-standing credit as the Grammys’ executive producer as of Monday, he still has goals for the show: He wants to see it become a truly global event that can pack football stadiums the way the Super Bowl does.

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That’s a far cry from what it was when Cossette entered the picture.

In 1971, he negotiated with the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences for the rights to stage the awards ceremony. He’d recently sold Dunhill Records, the label he launched in the ‘60s and the home of Three Dog Night, the Mamas & the Papas, Steppenwolf, Barry McGuire and others.

Today the Grammy telecast is shown in 166 countries and pulls an estimated audience of 700 million. But initially Cossette had to fight to persuade network TV executives that audiences would tune in to what had been an industry-only event in a hotel.

He finally persuaded ABC to take a chance on the show, and he put on the first live broadcast from the Hollywood Palladium in 1971.

Cossette sprinkles his conversation with bawdy stories and jokes, some involving the high and mighty with whom he’s cavorted over the years. But it’s apparent that he has never lost his connection to his humble beginnings in rural Canada, nor with the true definition of the word “risk,” one bandied about too loosely and lightly in the entertainment world.

For him, a risk isn’t putting Janet Jackson on network TV after last year’s debacle (he didn’t) or putting up money for a Broadway show (he did, notably for the Tony-winning “The Will Rogers Follies”).

Those are gambles.

Risk is serving in the Army during World War II as part of an engineering battalion that built prisoner-of-war camps, often preceding Allied troops as they marched across Germany.

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At one German encampment, the squad leader asked for a volunteer to check a building for mines or other booby traps. Cossette’s hand shot up. He carefully went in, scanned the room and spotted a large kettle the German troops had used for making soup. He put a finger in. “It was still warm,” he says. “They’d been there less than an hour before.”

It was also the Army that gave him a phrase he still invokes.

If a Grammy skit doesn’t work, or a performer cancels at the last minute, Cossette brushes it off and says, “At least I’m not on the truck.”

Casual visitors probably don’t give the remark a second thought, but it stems from one mission for which his unit was called upon to remove bodies of German soldiers. Each, Cossette recalls, “was better looking than the next, and all of them were about our age. We would have to pick the bodies up by the heels and throw them on the truck.”

Cossette doesn’t trot out the war stories for effect. Only at Mary’s urging does he go there, to make a point about keeping things in perspective.

The perspective he has for his post-Grammy years -- he’ll still work with the Recording Academy as an advisor -- is to pursue his other passion, theater.

Next up is a musical based on the life of folk singer Woody Guthrie and more writing, in some small way resuscitating a long-deferred dream of being a journalist. He’s not looking to be hired by this or any other newspaper, but the onetime USC journalism major says he thoroughly enjoyed making his autobiography the real deal rather than having it ghostwritten.

He expresses pride and self-deprecation about actually writing his 2003 memoir, “Another Day in Showbiz: One Producer’s Journey,” when he quips, “Who else would write my story?”

The closest he gets to voicing regret is talking about writing.

“I don’t have any serious regrets,” he says, “but in back of my soul, I was a writer, but I never became one.”

He mentions columnist Art Buchwald, a former USC classmate. “One day I told him, ‘I’ve had one thing in my lifetime that I’ve always wanted to be: Art Buchwald.’ And he said, ‘That’s funny. The one thing in my life that I’ve always wanted to be is Pierre Cossette.’ ”

No wonder. At 81, he’s still chasing dreams. And he’s not on the truck.


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