PASADENA — If the producers and artists have done their jobs right, long after viewers forget who won album of the year at the 55th Grammy Awards, airing Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 4, they will recall certain performances from the telecast.
Whether it’s match-ups that make perfect sense (Tina Turner and Beyoncé charging through “Proud Mary” in 2008), or ones that seem quizzical but end up paying fun dividends (Justin Timberlake and Arturo Sandoval getting sassy with “Senorita” in 2004), or the heralding of a new star, a la Ricky Martin’s triumphant “La Copa de la Vida” in 1999, the Grammy Awards are a dependable purveyor of watercooler fodder.
These, and so many others, are what executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who has helmed the telecast since 1980, calls Grammy “moments.” And he hopes a few more will transpire Sunday night with expected collaborations from Ed Sheeran and Elton John, Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert, and Bruno Mars, Rihanna, and Sting, as well as performances by Timberlake, Taylor Swift, the Black Keys, Frank Ocean, Fun. and Mumford & Sons among others.
“There is no process, honestly,” Ehrlich said, speaking with reporters at the recent Television Critics Association press conference. “You wake up in the middle of the night, and think about it. Some are logical. Some are not logical at all. I will tell you that it’s come a long way. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to get people to go along with it.”
But now, not only does everyone cooperate, said Ehrlich, sometimes they come up with ideas themselves.
For instance, Paul McCartney was set to close last year’s telecast with a Wings song but had a change of heart.
“I got a call from him saying, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night, and I thought, I’m closing the Grammys. Would it be OK if we did the finale from “Abbey Road”?’ So I said, ‘Maybe that will be all right,’ you know,” recalled Ehrlich with a chuckle.
From there, McCartney enlisted a little help from friends Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh. Bruce Springsteen came aboard the day before the show for what turned out to be a unique, one-off performance. “These things, they’re never on paper when the nominations come out. We have maybe some thought about them, but they develop over the really incredibly intense six- or seven-week period that we put the show together.”
Ehrlich thinks part of the reason that artists are game to try something different — aside from the sales surge known as “the Grammy bounce” performing offers in general — is because, unlike other trophy-fests, the Grammys are a performance-based show. “We have three hours of entertainment, one musical performance after another. Other shows don’t have that luxury.” (In fact, the lion’s share of awards are handed out during a pre-telecast that in recent years has streamed on the Web. It can be viewed live Sunday at 4 p.m at www.grammy.com.)
Host and Grammy winner LL Cool J also credits Ehrlich and his team for persuading acts to take chances with arrangements, staging, and collaborations. “You can have all the ingredients in there, but everybody can’t walk into a kitchen and make a masterpiece,” he said. “All of these artists are available to a lot of executive producers around the world. No disrepect to them, but he just has a knack and an understanding of how to put people together in a way that is fun and exciting and spectacular.”
Last year’s big Grammy stories included Adele’s clean sweep and the death of Whitney Houston the night before the show. With a wide open field of artists with multiple nominations, no clear frontrunner, and no dramatic offstage headlines, there is no such narrative this year. Ehrlich thinks that will be good for ratings, which have been strong in recent years.
“I’ve always believed that this show, the ups and downs ratings-wise — discounting the Whitney factor last year — are really related to how big a year it is in music. I think the Oscars are the same way. It looks this year that there’s going to be more interest in the Oscars because the movies are more popular. They are broader. There’s some really exciting things there, and I think, you know, the same thing is true in music.”Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.