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Grammys producer on Sunday's Michael Jackson tribute: 'He is looking down and saying...they are doing right'

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During Sunday’s telecast of the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, the show will feature the never-before-seen 3-D mini-movie for Earth Song that was created by Michael Jackson for his This Is It tour. Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich talked to EW.com about the decision to air the film, and how he tried to persuade Jackson to appear on the awards show last year.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about your decision to pay tribute to Michael Jackson.

KEN EHRLICH: Last year at this time, it was the 25th anniversary of Thriller and I was talking about having Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown – before the troubles – and Ne-Yo do a whole thing that ended with Michael. It would have started with two or three of them pretending to be Michael, and then Michael would be revealed. I pitched it to him, and I thought I had him. And he just said, “I’m not ready.. .I’ll be with you next year.” It wasn’t to be.

I came to Michael’s last rehearsal for the live show to meet about another project and coincidentally, he was watching the 3-D film for Earth Song. I could see what it meant to him. He told me it was as important or more important than anything else in the concert show because there was the message about preserving the earth. After we did his memorial service and started thinking about what to do for the Grammys, I did think about what (tributes) were done on other shows. Whenever I worked with Michael he’d say, “Kenny, let’s do something that no one has ever done before.” This is something that no one’s ever done before – certainly not on an awards show. I’m an old guy, kind of emotional. There is a part of me that thinks he is looking down at this and saying they are doing right by me.

Will there be song and dance with the footage?

The way it was going to go on the tour was that it would be shown, then a bulldozer would come out and Michael would perform the song with dancers. What I decided to do was have five people who Michael would have liked – Smokey Robinson, who was his Godfather, Usher, who was his disciple, along with Celine Dion, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson perform. I didn’t want to do a Natalie and Nat King Cole kind of thing, but you’ll hear Michael singing part of a verse, and then one of these artists singing another part of the verse. I think it has the potential to be one of those things that people will remember for a long time. There are four or five of these moments in the show that I don’t think I’m going to get through emotionally.

What are some others?

Last night about midnight I got a track that was done long distance by Andrea Bocelli in Italy and Mary J Blige. They put together “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Ron Fair, the head of Geffen Records, came to me and wanted to do something on the show for Haiti. I remembered that 40 years ago, “Bridge” won record and song of the year. I called Paul Simon and asked him if he would bless it. That’s how it started. People can download the song after the show and all the money will go to the Red Cross. Wyclef Jean is coming to introduce it.

With so many other music award shows out there, is it getting tougher to create water cooler moments on the Grammys?

Nope. We’re the at end of the road. The artists have already done the stuff they are going to do on the other shows so by the time they get to us, they are really looking for something. We are still the Grammys. They know we reach higher, we set the bar higher, and when they come to us, they want to do better. We’re not interested in doing the latest hit. We’re more interested in finding something that gives them a little more creativity.

Give us a little intel on the tribute to Bon Jovi.

The fans are voting for one of three songs on CBS.com (that Bon Jovi will perform; they are “Livin on a Prayer,” “It’s My Life,” and “Always”). He won’t know which song that won until 30 seconds before he finishes the second song and then boom, he’s on it. He’ll do “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” and then Jennifer Nettles will come on and join him, and then he’ll go into one of three songs.

How do you contain Lady Gaga on what’s supposed to be family-oriented telecast?

You work with her. We started in December. I have a tremendous amount of admiration for her. She’s really inventive. That’s the fun of it. There are people who come back year after year — the U2s and the Bruces — but the first-timers are not only a challenge but as much fun as anyone else.

Any procedural changes to the ceremony this year?

This year we’re gonna do the comedy album award. We haven’t done that in a long time. [This year’s nominees are Back From The Dead, Spinal Tap; A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All, Stephen Colbert; Internet Leaks, “Weird Al” Yankovic; My Weakness Is Strong, Patton Oswalt; Suckin’ It For The Holidays, Kathy Griffin; and Tall, Dark & Chicano, George Lopez.]

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