'VH1 Honors' producer banks on diversity


If you want to do music live on TV, you hire a guy who knows how to do it. And Ken Ehrlich, producer of "VH1 Honors," knows how. He's the man who has tried for the past 15 years to tame the beast called Grammy.

"The key to that one," he says just a bit defensively, "is its diversity. Three hours, 15 performances; I mean where else would you see Placido Domingo and Henry Rollins on the same stage?"

Diversity is at the heart of "VH1 Honors" as well, but come on, did the world really need another awards show?

"This one kind of evolved from an idea that really didn't start with awards or honors," Mr. Ehrlich says. "VH1 wanted to do something big and splashy, something more 'event' than 'award.' And 'event' means you try to do something that doesn't happen every day. That means putting together performers you'd never see together."

But to get people's attention, you have to have a reason to pull together a line-up as diverse as tonight's will be. (The program airs tonight at 8 on cable channel VH1.)

"That's the overlay -- the reason," Mr. Ehrlich says, "and maybe just having them together would have been enough of a reason. But it became very valid to the artists to say to them, 'You have shown over the years a very strong commitment to one or more causes, and we ask you to come and be a part of this show.' "

Compliments to the idea-mongers at VH1 for coming up with a worthwhile reason, recognition for public service outside the music industry.

Last year's event cited Melissa Etheridge's work for L.A. Shanti, a group that provides support for HIV-AIDS sufferers. Garth Brooks was tapped for his Feed the Children efforts.

And part of the performance excitement came from the unlikely pairings of honorees and presenters. As a result, Ms. Etheridge rocked with Van Halen's Sammy Hagar and Mr. Brooks got to do a duet with one of his early idols James Taylor.

XTC "We try to create a platform for such magic moments to happen," Mr. Ehrlich says. Which means doing all you can and then trusting fate.

"I like to get [the show] to the point where [the acts] are pretty comfortable with where they are, but I don't like to over-rehearse.

"We don't want the best performance to be the one in rehearsal."

This year, honorees run the gamut from the King of Pop Michael Jackson to the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year -- twice -- Vince Gill. And each celebrated guest has invited someone significant to his or her life or career to be his presenter. Which means 16 artists whose satisfaction Mr. Ehrlich must guarantee.

not going to say that it's easy," he says. "When you do multi-act shows, they all want to be treated best. Quincy [Jones] said it best when they did the 'We Are the World' thing. 'Leave the ego at the door.'

"But we try to create an environment in which the acts can be happy. To a great extent, it's a matter of trust," Mr. Ehrlich says. "And the people who work with me have established that kind of trust."

And tonight, when the lights go down and the music comes up, Mr. Ehrlich will be just off stage "working big time."

"At that point it's really my director's show," he says, "but I'm right there, working with the acts, giving it one last shot."

. Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow, Rachel and Phoebe respectively on the hit NBC sitcom "Friends," will be hosts of the affair, which will be telecast live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Herbie Hancock, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea will give special musical performances, and with the exception of Michael Jackson, all honorees will perform.

Honorees and the organizations for which they work are as follows: Boyz II Men, Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America; Vince Gill, Oklahoma City Victims and Families Relief Fund; Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston Foundation for Children; Mr. Jackson, Heal the World; Annie Lennox, Ropka Charitable Trust for Tibet; Bette Midler, Manhattan Restoration Project; the Red Hot Organization, which benefits AIDS education and relief; and Smokey Robinson, United Negro College Fund.

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