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How Justin Timberlake and Al Green saved the Grammys

February 12, 2009 |  4:37 pm

After close to three decades of Grammys duty, Ken Ehrlich is a hard man to rattle. But on Sunday, the executive producer had a few choppy hours where he faced the biggest show-day crisis in the history of "music's biggest night."

There's been plenty of rumors and speculation about the incident that led Chris Brown and Rihanna to cancel their respective performances at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, but for Ehrlich the only priority Sunday was filling chunks of suddenly empty airtime on an international broadcast that is planned down to the second.

"It was about 1 p.m. on Sunday, we were doing dress rehearsals and we had just finished up with Stevie Wonder and the Jonas Brothers when I got the call that Rihanna had been in a car accident -- that's how it was described to me -- and I was told that she was at the hospital being examined and that she wasn't going to be coming to the show."

Ehrlich was sitting with industry veteran Johnny Wright, the manager for the Jonas Brothers as well as a guiding force in Justin Timberlake's career dating back to the 'N Sync days. "I hung up the phone and I looked at Johnny and said, 'I think we're going to need some help.' " Twenty minutes later, word came that Brown was out too. "At that point, I didn't care why they weren't coming, all I knew is I had two holes in the show, one of them in the first act of the show, right after U2's opening performance. I knew we were in trouble."

Ehrlich and Wright made a beeline for Timberlake's dressing room. The young singer has a reputation as a trouper who's willing to pitch in, which is why in 2007 he agreed to perform on the Grammys show with the amateur winner of an "American Idol"-style audience vote and, perhaps, why he also found himself sharing a Super Bowl halftime stage with Janet Jackson on an ill-fated evening in 2004. Ehrlich had even tried to get the garrulous Timberlake to host this year's Grammys but the singer declined. On Sunday night, he came to Timberlake again with a more urgent request.

"I told him I lost two performances and I was in trouble," Ehrlich said, "and he looked at me and said, 'At times like this we all need to pull together -- what can I do?' "

Ehrlich said he could shorten the show by one music number but not two. He and Timberlake agreed that the best idea would be a duet of classic material performed with an elder artist; they sat down and looked at the seating chart. Timberlake said: "Al Green. If Al Green will do 'Let's Stay Together' with me, I can do it." It was almost 2 p.m. and Ehrlich's rehearsals had to be closed by 3:15. The race was on. Ehrlich reached Green's people, who contacted the singer.

(Green's account: "I was in the shower and didn't have anything on, and they said, 'Whatever you have, throw it in the bag and come on,' " Green said backstage to the press during the show. He said he was not given an explanation of the last-minute invite. "We had two hours and 40 minutes to rehearse, come back onstage and change and then go out and do it.")

There were a lot of moving parts and Ehrlich was afraid that, this year, his tightrope might actually snap. A huge challenge was making the number sound good; unlike the 1998 show when an ailing Luciano Pavarotti dropped out and Aretha Franklin filled his spot on “Nessun dorma,” the late change this year was to a completely different song. That created a host of challenges to the sound team.

The final result? There are mixed opinions about the quality of the duet by Timberlake and Green, but all things considered, it was the best half-court shot in the history of Staples Center. "I won't forget this year," Ehrlich said. "I will always smile when I think about it. But I sure don't want to do it again."

-- Geoff Boucher

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images