When Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammys and other awards shows, worked with the Obama administration on a concert honoring women at the White House, first lady Michelle Obama laid down one rule.
“You aren’t doing a tribute to women in my house without Aretha Franklin,” Ehrlich recalls Obama telling him.
And so Franklin — a longtime friend of Ehrlich — was added to the 2014 “Women of Soul” bill, which included Patti LaBelle, Ariana Grande, Janelle Monae and Tessanne Chin. Despite those illustrious names and subsequent rousing performances, it was Franklin who of course stole the show. In her closing performance, Franklin performed “Amazing Grace” — while wearing a fur coat — and took the White House to church with a foot-stomping, hand-clapping rendition that continued even after show officially ended.
“When she got going, and she was in the spirit, which she would get when she was singing gospel . you could start her, but stopping her was an entirely different story,” Ehrlich said by phone on Thursday, hours after learning of Franklin’s death at the age of 76.
That moment was just one of the magical moments Ehrlich helped orchestrate with Franklin over the years. The most famous, certainly, was when Ehrlich was producing the Grammys in 1998 and Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to sing “Nessun Dorma” during the broadcast — but then bowed out due to illness just as the show was about to air live.
Ehrlich quickly started running through the many performers on hand who could fill the time — he first thought of asking Stevie Wonder to do something amazing, as Wonder is known to do. But then Ehrlich recalled Franklin had performed at a tribute concert to Pavarotti two nights earlier, and sung “Nessun Dorma.” She was already due to do a short performance of “Respect” for a “Blues Brothers” anniversary number — perhaps she would fill in for the famed opera tenor?
So he went to Franklin’s cramped dressing room — she had a small one because she was not the main performer — and interrupting her fried chicken dinner to make his last-minute request.
“I think I said, ‘How would you like to sing twice tonight?'” he recalled. “Then there was a silence, and she said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.”
Just before she went on stage, Ehrlich remembers her squeezing his hand and saying to him, “This is gonna be fun.”
It was more than fun: It became one of her greatest performances, part of music history, and added to her already legendary status, with the Queen of Soul so deftly performing the famous aria.
The next day, Ehrlich and Franklin spoke in an emotional phone call that had them both on the verge of tears.
“She said, ‘I knew this was going to be something different, but I didn’t know it would be so great,'” Ehrlich remembers.
Ehrlich produced other Grammy shows and events that featured Franklin performances. He praised her musicianship. A dazzling piano player in her own right, she only wanted the best performing with her, particularly on drums.
“If you weren’t with her timewise, she’d let you have it,” he recalled.
One of his favorite performances was one he orchestrated with Elton John in 1993, where the two played on opposite pianos and performed John’s “Border Song” — a mesmerizing duet.
Ehrlich said years after that — including this year — when he and John spoke, one of them would always say, “Remember that night with Aretha?”
Ehrlich said no matter what happens in music, Franklin will always be the model that singers and musicians would look to for excellence.
“People are gonna be trying their hardest to both remember her and wanna do what she did” he said. “I’ve seen it all my life now. I saw it with Whitney, I see it with Beyonce . I see it with Carrie Underwood . I see it with every genre. . I think both men and women, but women particularly, will be singing those songs.”
He added: “Just the being that was Aretha Franklin will go on forever.”