NEW YORK — Justin Timberlake has had plenty of highlights in his glittering career but not many people know he helped save the Grammy Awards in 2009.
That was the year Chris Brown, accused of beating up his girlfriend Rihanna the night before, abruptly dropped out as a performer just hours before it was to air live. So did Rihanna.
So Timberlake huddled with veteran Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich and they did what any great jazz artist does — they improvised.
Instead of Rihanna, Timberlake would sing with soul legend Al Green, who had originally been slated to just present an award. They added Keith Urban on guitar and backing vocals from Boyz II Men. The scramble paid off.
“We wound up putting together a number in three hours that wasn’t on paper before,” recalls Ehrlich. “That became this amazing Al Green-Justin Timberlake ‘Let’s Stay Together’ number that aired about 20 minutes into the show and didn’t exist four hours before.”
That story and many others are included in “Grammys’ Greatest Stories: A 60th Anniversary Special” airing Friday on CBS that features interviews with John Legend, Ed Sheeran, Mary J Blige, Sting, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, Chris Martin, Carrie Underwood and Paul McCartney.
The special explores some groundbreaking Grammy performances , like Pink’s stunning, acrobatic performance in 2010, the high-energy pairing of Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar in 2014, and Beyonce and Prince doing a medley in 2004.
Most of the coolest water cooler Grammy moments are dreamed up by Ehrlich, who has been the brains — and diplomatic negotiator — behind the show since 1980 and has built a reputation for combining unlikely artists.
He’s been doing it since his first Grammys in charge when he paired Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond on a duet of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” He later got Elton John to sing with Eminem in 2001 and assembled Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Usher to honor Michael Jackson in 2010.
“Honestly, the Grammys didn’t get a great deal of respect in the early years and I’m not even sure how much we have now, other than the fact that people do know that musically the show strives to be better and different and not just be a parade of hits,” said Ehrlich.
Each year, Ehrlich learns about the nominations the way everyone else does — when they’re announced. He goes to concerts all the time and listens to all kinds of music to stay current. (He’s lately become a fan of the up-and-coming singer SZA.)
“As soon as I get a sense in my head of where the nominations are headed, then I start thinking about combinations,” he says. “When I head music, I hear music that’s connected to it. I always have.”
Ehrlich’s canvas has changed over the years, now stretching over 3½ hours and crammed with some 20 performances. Because the Grammys celebrate all music, he’s had gospel segments, featured classical artists and highlighted Broadway’s “Hamilton.”
Once Ehrlich learns the nominations, he immediately gets to work planning the show in his home office crammed with CDs, concert DVDs and music books. Some musical combinations come quick, like pairing Ellie Goulding and Andra Day for this year’s telecast. That took 15 minutes. “Songs don’t always work together. But more often than not, if you go deep enough, you can find the marriage.”
Other times he recognizes that the artist should be alone onstage, as he did with a memorable Aguilera performance of “Beautiful” in 2004. He suggested she start the song kneeling, reflecting the song’s vulnerability.
Convincing Bruno Mars to sing “Locked Out of Heaven” in 2013 took work. Mars, who wasn’t eligible for a Grammy that year, told Ehrlich he wasn’t interested in performing. But Ehrlich, a huge fan, didn’t give up.
He recognized that the song had a reggae feel, which made him think of Sting. Then he thought Rihanna would be a perfect compliment. Then he realized he had to have Ziggy and Damian Marley and created a Bob Marley tribute that spanned generations and countries. He went back to Mars.
“I called him back about two days later and said, ‘OK, so you don’t want to do the Grammys. So you don’t want to do ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ with Sting and Rihanna and the Marleys?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ve got to do that.”
Jack Sussman, the CBS vice president who oversees live events, says memorable Grammy moments come from Ehrlich’s musical expertise, his ability to get artists into a room and his sense of when to get out of the way.
“Ken has spent his career creating relationships with artists and record producers, labels and managers to be able to get artists to do something that they might not normally do at the first request from just anybody else,” Sussman says.
Ehrlich is also the man who turned the In Memoriam section from a depressing montage to something special by adding live musicians. He first did it in 2004, when Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt honored Joe Strummer of The Clash.
A year later, the Emmys followed suit. “Now everybody does it,” he says.
Though Ehrlich has no control over the Grammy categories or nominations, his show often must deal with fallout over criticism of the way the awards are handled by the Recording Academy.
Hip-hop’s relationship with the Grammys has often been turbulent and this year Drake did not submit his CD “More Life” for consideration. “I’m not sure that anybody wins when that happens,” says Ehrlich.
“It bothers me the way the hip-hop community feels about the Grammys,” he adds. “I have a huge belief in Drake as an artist. It really hurts when I see that he does not want to be part of the process.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits