By Geoff Boucher
February 08, 2013 at 06:13 PM EST

Justin Timberlake will be up first today as rehearsals continue for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, and the singer will know he’s good to go when he gets an approving nod from Ken Ehrlich, the executive producer who is calling the tune for Sunday night’s show just as he has for past 33 years. No, that’s not a typo — Ehrlich has been the gatekeeper of the Grammys stage since the 1980 edition of the show, and he’s the guiding hand behind the show’s signature mix-and-match approach to putting artists and songs together in fused fashion.

On that first February 1980 show, trophies went home with Donna Summer, Kenny Rogers, and Bob Dylan, who performed on the Grammys that night not because of the nomination but because of the credibility the new executive producer brought with him from the Chicago music scene. Times have changed –a Grammy for best disco recording won’t be presented during this Sunday night’s broadcast, for one thing, and there’s been a sharp decrease in both platinum records and polyester pants – but Ehrlich endures. In fact he’s thriving: The Grammys had record ratings last year (and for reasons that went beyond the fresh tragedy of Whitney Houston’s death).

The towering success of 2012 (the Grammys broadcast topped the Oscars audience for the first time) is a tough act to follow but EW asked Ehrlich to set aside mass appeal and talk about the show on a personal level – what are the moments he’s looking forward to most? Like the executive producer himself, the answers were at times sentimental, often unfiltered and always loyal first and foremost to live music and its possibilities…

NEXT: Q&A with Ken Ehrlich

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The tribute to Levon Helm, who died in April in New York, looks pretty amazing with Elton John, Mumford & Sons, Mavis Staples, and Brittany Howard [of Alabama Shakes], and of course T Bone Burnett, guiding that number…

KEN EHRLICH: It’s a group that feels right because it reaches out across [different] types of music just like Levon, who was about old and young, country and pop. He was this incredibly eclectic artist. It’s a great cast of people. The thing I love about it is the most minute detail of it, which is that Elton, who loved Levon, and even wrote a little song [with lyricist Bernie Taupin] about him, I’ve asked him to do a little thing, and he while he hasn’t said yes yet, I think that he will. He’s got the last verse-chorus, and as the others are singing [the Band’s classic] The Weight I want him to tag it and do a little callback to [the Levon lyric] “He shall be Levon,” which I think will really put a lump in everybody’s throat. It should be really touching, I think. It’s the part of the memorial segment of the show, which has become a pretty special thing for us, it’s something that is emotional, and that’s what music can be more than anything else.

Justin Timberlake is opening the show. I know he’s one of your favorites…

It’s great seeing Justin back. The last time he was on, he literally saved the show. We had a gaping hole in the show [after the Chris Brown and Rihanna incident] and he jumped in at the top of the show with Al Green. It was fantastic of him to do it. And then, I hope we didn’t cause it, but he left music for a while and became a movie star of sorts. It was really exciting when we got the call that he was back and doing music. I don’t know how many people even knew until a few months ago that he was back and making music. He was incredibly quiet about the fact that he was working on an album. And to me it’s not just an album, it’s a great album. He played five or six tracks for me just two or three weeks ago, and the great thing is not only is he doing a song that everybody has heard by now, but he’s also going to tack on to that something that nobody has heard. So we’ve got a nice little world premiere going with him that’s very, very exciting.

NEXT: fun. is a newcomer to watch

The line-up is different than it was just two weeks ago with Justin’s addition, but there are other changes, too, right?

I added Alicia Keys. I don’t know if she was in there when I showed you the board a few weeks ago. That started when I was looking for a way to get Maroon 5 on the show, and to some extent, to get Alicia on the show. I went through Maroon 5’s music and when I did, and I don’t mind saying this, I came across two songs: “Daylight” by [Maroon 5] and “Girl on Fire” by Alicia, and it was almost like an Escher painting, you know? You don’t know if the stairs are going up or if the stairs are going down, and for me it’s the prototype of the truly great mash-ups that we look for. The Grammys should be where you hear things you know but you hear them in new ways and you see pairings that you won’t see anywhere else.

Of the acts that have never been on the Grammy stage before, who are you excited about?

Well, fun. is the one, probably. This kid [lead singer Nate Ruesshas] has got it. It’s distinctive. There’s a little Freddy Mercury there, but it’s different enough that he’s his own thing and really good. They’ve three songs – “We are Young” and “Carry On” and “Some Nights” – that are just hook-y as any pop songs I’ve heard in years. I think it’s going to wind up – and I don’t even mind building a little case for it – that these guys are going to be right in there and maybe competitive with Bruno [Mars] over the next several years. There’s a similarity there, Bruno can write great pop tunes as well.

Fans of Mars and fun. might be surprised to hear them linked. Their music seems fairly different.

What they both do extremely well – and it’s also what Justin does extremely well, and it’s funny because we were just talking about him – all three of these acts have a great ability to go back and borrow from previous incarnations of pop music but also add a layer to them and make them their own in a way that feels natural. I mean, Bruno does it, like the song he’s going to do on the show, “Locked Out of Heaven,” it didn’t take me long to call Sting when I heard that one. There’s a lot of the Police in that song, and he isn’t shy about acknowledging that. “Locked Out of Heaven” grew out of his admiration for the Police and for Sting. And Sting and the Police grew out of the music of the Marleys. It’s all generational and they know it.

NEXT: Grammys stars as “keepers of the flame”

It’s not a surprise that appeals to you – that’s the signature of your Grammy shows, connecting generational dots like that, like [the 2006 pairing of] Stevie Wonder with Alicia Keys or [on last year’s show] with the Beach Boys and Foster the People, and Maroon 5 representing a Southern California harmony and pop falsetto and pop youth, too, I’d guess.

Well, that’s it. That’s why those three acts – Bruno, Justin, and fun. – they are a story in and of themselves to me, because in a way they kind of do what I try to with the show. They’re the keepers of the flame. In the face of radical shifts in a musical landscape – hip-hop in particular – they harken back to a retro feel and they respect it. I love the things off of Justin’s album that I’ve heard so and I love this Bruno album, Unorthodox Jukebox. Those three acts are going to be a real force over the next several years.

When you mentioned that all three of those acts “borrow,” I guess the difference between derivative and being part of a continuity is how you finish, not how you start. Simon & Garfunkel were just an Everly Brothers knockoff…until they weren’t, which didn’t take long.

And then there are things like Billy Joel. What is “Uptown Girl”? What is “Miami 2017”? What is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”? All he did was just say I want to add my own flavor. I’m going to stick with what works and express myself within that. And I respect that. And then on the other hand, to name two on this show, you also have Jack White and you have the Black Keys, and those songs are also derivative and generational. I’ve got the Black Keys with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Dr. John. Can you get more historic than that? And their song that they’re going to perform on the show came from something they heard that came from 1959, and Jack White is doing a medley, and the first part of it, “Freedom 21,” could have heard of the Louisiana Hayride in 1948. And those are great songs. I love it.

NEXT: Country history echoes

Let’s stay on the hay wagon: What does the Grammy show on Sunday night have as far as the country music front?

Well, at a time when so much of country music is Southern rock redux, we have Miranda [Lambert] and Dierks [Bentley] doing these two plaintive country songs that throwbacks to like a Loretta Lynn, and for him, well, I won’t say Hank Williams, but it goes to the tradition that followed him. There’s new layers and new voices there but they’re classic. Is it maybe not such a good thing? I don’t know, but in a way it’s probably what makes my show so watchable.

It could be just the emphasis that comes with the presentation — put the generations side-by-side and you’ll look for the contrasts and connections?

I don’t set out to do that, but it comes around to this a lot. Look, Frank Ocean loves Bill Withers, that would have been a great one to make happen and it would have been great. You can look at it two different ways. Either pop music is not progressing much, or there’s a really great rebirth of a golden era. Not the golden era of Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, but it’s other golden era, the R&B and soul and early rock ‘n’ roll and pop. Are we stuck or we just moving through again?


Songs we loved? EW’s music staff weighs in