Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich recalls emotional weekend of Whitney Houston’s death: ‘I remember I did lose it’

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Host LL Cool J pays tribute to the late Whitney Houston onstage at the 54th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 12, 2012. (Photo: John Shearer/WireImage)

Host LL Cool J pays tribute to the late Whitney Houston onstage at the 54th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 12, 2012. (Photo: John Shearer/WireImage)

Ten years ago, television producer Ken Ehrlich was overseeing the 2012 Grammy Awards’ dress rehearsal on a Saturday afternoon when he heard the news of a “death in the family” that rocked the Grammys and the entire music industry.

“I remember standing there at the foot of the stage, and somebody came running up to me and said, ‘We just heard that Whitney Houston died,’” Ehrlich tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And you know, I did have one of those reactions like, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ And then it turns out — no, they weren’t kidding. It was one of those half-dozen moments during the 40 years that I did the show where it was like, ‘OK, now what do we do?’ — after the initial shock, of course.”

That afternoon, on Feb. 11, 2012, Houston had been found dead in a bathtub in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel — where downstairs, the annual pre-Grammy gaga hosted by her mentor, Clive Davis, was set to take place in just a few hours. (It was later revealed that she had died from drowning due to coronary artery disease and cocaine intoxication.) The news was incredibly shocking, and Ehrlich confesses that he was “not above a moment of panic.” But he says he “did go into damage control right away, because that’s just kind of my makeup. … I don’t panic, and I immediately begin to think about solutions to problems.”

However, Ehrlich stresses that this “was one of those nights where it was about the team. Everybody pulled together, because in those kind of situations, you just have to. I don’t even remember calling a meeting and saying, ‘What do we have to do?’” Ehrlich ultimately credits Jennifer Hudson, who signed on to pay musical tribute to Houston at the following night’s 54th annual Grammy Awards, and to first-time ceremony host LL Cool J, who opened the show with a prayer, for setting the perfect tone for the difficult night.

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“My first instinct was, ‘OK, we’re going to have to totally redo the show and dedicate it to Whitney Houston, and we’ll build a whole new show, blah, blah, blah,’” Ehrlich recalls. “And then within probably five minutes of that not particularly well-thought-out thought, I realized rather pragmatically, ‘Look, we can’t redo the whole show. And we shouldn’t.’ What we needed to do was recognize what an important person and artist Whitney was to the Grammys over the years, and do an appropriate homage or remembrance, but — and I’m not sure these are the right words — not let it take the show away from all of the [nominated] artists. Because those artists had earned their way, and we really owed it to them not to take away from their accomplishments.”

Hudson, to whom Houston had once “passed the torch” at a fateful backstage meeting, immediately sprang to Ehrlich’s mind. (“We didn’t reach out to anybody else,” he claims.) He quickly placed a call to musician Greg Phillinganes, who was working with Hudson at the time and had worked with Houston in the past, and put Phillinganes on “standby” while he attempted to reach Hudson. By the time he contacted the Dreamgirls star, and it was past 5 p.m. that Saturday, and she was on her way to Clive Davis’s gala at the now-infamous Beverly Hills Hotel, the site of Houston’s death. (Ehrlich admits that he was “surprised that the party went on” as planned, and had assumed it would be canceled.)

“I asked Jennifer if she would come in Sunday morning, the show day, and I said to her, ‘I want to do this before we start to dress [rehearsal]. I don’t want people there. If you could come in a half-hour or an hour before dress, you can sit with Greg Phillinganes and work out a version of “I Will Always Love You”… but it can’t be big, and it shouldn’t be big. It should just be a remembrance.’ And that’s what we wound up doing.”

Hudson arrived the next morning when the Staples Center “was still pretty empty,” because Ehrlich “didn’t want her to be subjected to the added pressure [of an audience]. … But [the empty room], frankly, only added to the emotion of the moment. I do remember she couldn’t get through it that morning. She broke down at least twice. It was just her and Greg Phillinganes; I didn’t have any orchestra there, I didn’t have a drummer, I didn’t have a bass player. And she couldn’t get through it the first time we did it.”

Jennifer Hudson reacts after performing Jennifer Hudson reacts after performing

Jennifer Hudson reacts after performing “I Will Always Love You” as a tribute to the late Whitney Houston at the 54th annual Grammy Awards. (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Ehrlich picked Houston’s Dolly Parton-penned hit The Bodyguard hit for its lyrics. “‘I will always love you’ — to a person who you respected and admired and loved who just passed away — I don’t know if there’s anything more appropriate than that. I never thought of another song. That just cried out to me,” he explains. He then sequenced Hudson’s performance “deep in the show,” as the evening’s 16th musical number, “because I didn’t want it to follow or lead into another major performance.” It was a truly heart-rending and beautiful moment, with a noticeably choked-up Hudson ending the song with an ad-libbed “Whitney, we will always love you.”

However when Ehrlich looks back on the emotional telecast of Feb. 12, 2012, he speaks most glowingly of LL Cool J’s opening words.

“If there was anyone that saved the show that night, it was LL,” raves Ehrlich. “You have to remember, that was the first [Grammys] show that he hosted. To have him come in under those circumstances — I don’t know if there was a harder job in the entertainment than that. I was so grateful to him to that day. He took what could have been an almost impossible situation and handled it with such dignity and such grace. I had such respect for him, which grew so incrementally larger after he carried this particular show.”

LL was present at the Saturday afternoon dress rehearsal when the tragic news broke of Houston’s death, and he convened with Ehrlich and show writer David Wild to do “a quick recount of what we might do, and what we could do without really tearing a show apart. And we didn’t have an answer right away, to be honest with you,” Ehrlich recalls. LL then left the set to attend a dinner, but a few hours later, he phoned Ehrlich and Wild as they were attempting to rewrite his opening monologue. And he had a surprising suggestion — one that Ehrlich actually resisted at first.

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“He called, and it was the first time he actually articulated to David and me, ‘You know, I think I ought say a prayer.’ And to be very honest with you, my first instinct was, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve never had a prayer on a Grammy show. That’s antithetical to the Grammy celebration. Everybody’s [supposed to be] happy, and we’re gonna do a prayer?’ I never actually said that to him, but in my mind I thought, ‘I just don’t think this is gonna work,’” Ehrlich confesses. “So, I said to him, ‘Well, why don’t you think about that? We’ll work up two openings — one that is kind of straight-ahead and recognizing [the tragedy], but not having a prayer. And then we’ll come up with something that also has that prayer in it.’ And he said, ‘OK, but I’m telling you, I really think [a prayer] is the right way to go.’

“And he came in the next morning and he had written his own thoughts, and it was so beautiful and so appropriate and so perfect that we just basically ripped up the couple of things we had worked on. And what he wound up doing in that show at the opening was about 80 percent him. We ran it a couple of times in the dress [rehearsal], and it was so emotional and so affecting that even him reading it the first time on the prompter — his words, for the most part — was really beautiful.”

That Sunday night on live television, LL Cool J somberly addressed the mourning A-list audience with: “There is no way around this. We’ve had a death in our family. So, at least for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for the woman we loved, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston.” He then recited his prayer, saying, “Heavenly Father, we thank for sharing our sister Whitney with us. Today our thoughts are with her daughter, her mother, and all of her loved ones. And although she is gone too soon, we feel remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit, and to have her lasting legacy of music to cherish and share forever. Amen. ”

Ehrlich still marvels as he recalls the reaction in the Staples Center crowd. “When it was over, there was moment of silence. There was no applause. That place got as quiet as it’s ever been. It was remarkable that LL was able to do that. I hope this doesn’t come out the wrong way, but there’s a tradition of having comics host the Grammys. … And you could name any number of comics that maybe would have been able to handle it with the same dignity and grace, but the fact that he was an African American personality who straddled the worlds of music and television, it just gave him that extra bit of cred to go out and do this. So, it was very fortuitous.”

Ehrlich was of course used to this sort of chaos during his four decades of producing the Grammys’ live telecast — for instance, in 1998, he had to draft Aretha Franklin to sing “Nessun Dorma” after Luciano Pavarotti canceled at the last minute, and in 2009, he had to revamp the show after Chris Brown and Rihanna bailed during dress rehearsal (an incident that Ehrlich still ranks as “probably No. 1 in terms of being the most stressful”). Even the final Grammys ceremony he oversaw, in January 2020, had to be retooled after Kobe Bryant died that morning. “Looking back, people have said to me that they admire that I am able to kind of keep it together, because it helps them keep it together,” Ehrlich muses. But he admits that Houston’s death left him especially rattled, because of her deep, longstanding connection to the Grammys.

Producer/director Ken Ehrlich speaks onstage during 'We Will Always Love You: A Grammy Salute to Whitney Houston; at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Oct. 11, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Christopher Polk/WireImage)Producer/director Ken Ehrlich speaks onstage during 'We Will Always Love You: A Grammy Salute to Whitney Houston; at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Oct. 11, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Christopher Polk/WireImage)

Producer/director Ken Ehrlich speaks onstage during ‘We Will Always Love You: A Grammy Salute to Whitney Houston; at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Oct. 11, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Christopher Polk/WireImage)

“That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing. I’m kind of famous for saying [celebrities] are not your friends, and I mean it; yes, you can have good working relationships with them, but for the most part, with a couple of rare exceptions, they’re not. They just respect you, and you respect them. Whitney was on the borderline of that, because we had been there from the beginning,” Ehrlich says. “So, even though I remember that my first inclination [upon learning of Whitney’s death] was ‘let’s fix this,’ around 4 o’clock Sunday — once Jennifer agreed to do what she was going do and we were well into how LL was going rework what he was doing — then it hit me. I remember having a moment. … I remember I did lose it.

“At the Staples Center, there was a little Xerox room right behind where my office was; there was just equipment in there, and I can’t even recall if there was a window. I remember just going into that room and closing the door, standing with all those machines,” Ehrlich recalls softly. “I just had to be alone for about three or four minutes to gather myself, to think back as to what Whitney meant — and cry.”

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