Ken Ehrlich’s phone rings incessantly, to the point where he can barely finish a thought without being interrupted by a buzz, a matter of critical importance awaiting him on the other end of the receiver every time.
“Sorry ... that’s my life these days,” he says, as he searches for where he left off in conversation.
The Emmy-winning producer is one of the busiest men in show business. On any given Sunday between now and Easter, four music spectacles will air in prime time, all bearing the Ken Ehrlich Productions stamp.
Typically, we meet Ehrlich while he’s perched behind a soundboard in the middle of running through a show, calling the shots with the aplomb of a man who’s spent most of his life shepherding live television. Today, he’s swiveling around a chair in a largely barren office, with only the clutter from the many projects Ehrlich’s currently got in the works as decoration.
Notes for this year’s Grammys are strewn across his desk. Propped against a wall is the show’s most current run plastered on bright pink postcards push-pinned into a 4-by 6-foot bulletin board.
Atop a dusty record player are retrospective vinyls from Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, subjects of upcoming specials Ehrlich is producing, as well as Diana Ross, whom he just secured for a performance on Sunday’s Grammys. Just one week after the awards show, on Feb. 17, an “Elvis All-Star Tribute” will air on NBC.
At 76, Ehrlich is still driven by those records, but his musical knowledge, by necessity, extends to every generation since that era. Over a career that stretches nearly half a century, Ehlich has redefined the way we experience live music on television.
Ehrlich has produced specials for everyone from Elton John to Whitney Houston, from Paul Simon to the Eagles and has worked with Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. He’s overseen the Emmys and the Latin Grammys, created franchises such as VH1 Divas and launched the MTV Movie Awards.
And since the tail end of the Carter administration, he’s been the man behind the Grammy Awards.
A career in music wasn’t the original plan Ehrlich envisioned for himself.
Growing up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, he dreamed of being a sportswriter, enrolling at Ohio University, which is known for its journalism program (he minored in public relations and advertising). “My mother said, ‘The newspaper business, someday, is not going to be there. You better do something else,’ ” he says with a laugh.
After college, Ehrlich took off to New York to pursue publicity. He interviewed with MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros. — “all the legendary guys. I didn’t get one job offer,” he says.
Instead, he landed at a small PR firm in Chicago and by the end of the ’60s, he was moonlighting as the producer of “The Marty Faye Show.” Soon after, Faye, a local radio and TV personality, asked Ehrlich — who was then doing publicity for the jazz station that Faye anchored — if he wanted to produce his return to TV. Ehrlich had never worked on a production, let alone steered one entirely. The pay was $75 a week and Faye’s promise to get Ehrlich into the best clubs in town.
“I got bitten hard,” he remembered. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is fun.’ ”
His production career ascended in the 1970s when he left public relations and went to the local Chicago PBS station WTTW. He persuaded the brass to give him a shot at producing a live concert series. The show, which became known as “Soundstage” in 1974, showcased Ehrlich’s musical instincts and vision and eventually became a presence across PBS stations nationwide.
Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles. Ehrlich’s name was on specials for Liza Minnelli, Cheryl Ladd and the Bee Gees before he produced both the Emmys and the Grammys for the first time in 1980.
“I just learned how to deal with talent,” he says when asked if he’s got a secret to his storied success. “Someone asked me the other day how I learned to do this. The simple answer is you don’t. That's how you prepare. You do it enough, either you figure it out, or you go into sales. I think I figured it out.”
The ‘D’ year
An effusive smile never leaves Ehrlich’s face, even as he lets a four-letter word slip after being presented with some rather inconvenient travel options to Atlanta for the Super Bowl — on his way to the game, he tells me over e-mail that he’d just booked his final act for this year’s Grammys and, without revealing more, says it’s “quite possibly the ‘sleeper’ ” he’d been looking for.
He’s charming, reflective and self-deprecating in a way that makes him far more approachable than your typical TV mogul.
Ehrlich’s tufts of red hair are now stark white — something he makes certain to joke about a number of times in conversation. He’s dressed the way we usually find him in the days before one of his big shows: jeans, sneakers and a slightly oversized hoodie, which is covering a T-shirt from the 2018 Global Citizen Festival (yep, he produced that too).
Nearly 40 years removed from his debut Grammys, Ehrlich still gets starry-eyed when he talks about putting together his first telecast after catching the attention of Pierre Cosette, the man who launched the telecast in 1971.
His smile widens as he recounts the ceremony he refers to as “the D year” because he’d booked the Doobie Brothers, Dionne Warwick, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan. “[Dylan] called me five days before the show to ask what to wear to the Grammys,” he says, beaming.
In that first year working on the show, Ehrlich established what has become his signature. He had pushed to secure Diamond and Barbra Streisand to perform a duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers.” Over a late-night call, Streisand pitched the idea of a sultry caress to Diamond’s cheek, and Ehrlich told her how the camera would best capture it. The performance birthed the “Grammy moment,” which isn’t just synonymous with Ehrlich, but has become an assured staple of award show culture.
Elton and Eminem. Metallica and Lang Lang. A massive on-air wedding for gay and straight couples — officiated by Queen Latifah and blessed by Madonna, no less. Ehrlich was at the center of all those and countless other TV moments that kept you talking.
“I remember everything about most shows,” he says, before letting out a cackle. “There are some years where I’m thrilled with what happens, and there are some years where I’m less than thrilled.”
Late last fall, we found Ehrlich amid a familiar scene. He was seated in the production bullpen erected in the center of the empty Microsoft Theater. He was flanked by his trusted team and thumbing through a thick binder of color-coded notes before leaving his post to tend to Gloria Estefan and her daughter, Emily, as Meghan Trainor waited in the wings.
It was the final day of rehearsals for “Q85: A Musical Celebration for Quincy Jones,” which kicked off a busy season for Ken Ehrlich Productions.
Days after helming the Jones special, which aired on BET in December, Ehrlich zipped across the country to oversee the Global Citizen Festival in New York.
He then tackled a show celebrating the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s comeback special by re-creating the spectacle — he flips open his laptop to play a clip of Keith Urban and Post Malone, the sort of wild pairing one can only find on his specials. And last month, he oversaw an impressive retrospective of Aretha Franklin’s career that’s currently sitting on the shelf as he preps the Grammys and a show based on the indelible music of Motown (the Franklin special airs in March; the Motown special is set for April).
Most of Ehrlich’s peers have long retired by now, which he’s reminded of when he returns to the sleepy golf course community in the valley that he calls home.
“There are a number of people, very successful people, who sold their business for a lot more money than I have, and they play golf every day, and they have great lives. It's not for me. Maybe someday,” he says. “I don’t envy their lives, and I don't want to say that they envy mine. They're just different.
Although he’s got no plans of slowing down, Ehrlich doesn’t have a firm answer when it comes to how much longer he’ll be at the helm of the Grammys.