Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich recently caught flak for (mis)casting Jennifer Lopez to lead the 61st Annual Grammy Awards’ aggressively Vegas-y Motown tribute. But both Ehrlich and Lopez redeemed themselves Sunday, when Lopez pulled off a surprisingly credible -- and unsurprisingly sexy -- homage of another sort on NBC’s Ehrlich-produced Elvis All-Star Tribute, a spectacular two-hour show commemorating Elvis Presley’s landmark “’68 Comeback” special.
Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson (of Promise of the Real, the regular backing band for Neil Young that also played with Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born), accompanied Lopez on a Gibson Les Paul Junior guitar from 1956 -- the year that the classic J.Lo covered Sunday, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released. Nelson told Rolling Stone, “[Lopez] said it’s been a dream of hers to play [in] front of a rock ‘n’ roll band, and she got her dream realized. I think she killed it. She did a great job.”
Ehrlich, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the Elvis special, agreed. “She got into it. She came to be Elvis Presley for two minutes and 47 seconds, and she nailed it.”
Indeed she did. Rocking a King-inspired rhinestoned jumpsuit, standing on a recreation of the in-the-round, boxing-ring stage that Presley historically played more than 50 years ago, and accompanied by Nelson and Grammy/Emmy-winning musical director Don Was, J.Lo delivered a sultry, standing ovation-garnering “Heartbreak Hotel” -- clearly indulging in her long-held rock-star fantasy, at one point even dropping to her knees as a wind-fan whipped her wild Stevie Nicks tresses.
Ehrlich further praised Lopez’s onstage chemistry with Nelson, telling Yahoo Entertainment: “She said to me, ‘I want a rocker! I want somebody else to be a part of this!’ And it was fun. They played with each other pretty good.”
As for the backlash to Lopez’s Motown performance (which will be part of April’s Ehrlich-produced tw-hout Motown 60 special on CBS, alongside performances by old-school Motown roster artists like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves), Ehrlich seemed unfazed. And he steadfastly defended Lopez during his Yahoo Entertainment interview.
“You know, [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy said to me, ‘Motown was a record company for all people. It wasn't just for black people, it wasn't just for white people, and it wasn't just for brown people. We called the company the sound of young America,’” Ehrlich explained, addressing viewers' complaints that the Grammys' Motown segment was not led by an African American artist. “So to me, [the J.Lo Grammy controversy] is a non-story. People are just looking for things [to protest], so that was one of them they looked for." (Ehrlich declined to comment on this year's other Grammy controversy, Ariana Grande's boycott.)
“I like [Lopez], and I like her people. We worked together a few times over the years… and we just got to know each other, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for her. And she has the courage of her convictions,” Ehrlich continued. “She's a force of nature, and that probably contributed to wanting to have her be a part of both of these [Elvis and Motown tribute] shows.
“All I know is that we plucked that [Motown] performance out of [the upcoming longer Motown 60 special] for a number of reasons, not the least of which was it really representative of seven or eight Motown songs. We did some other medleys on the Motown 60 show, but this was really representative, and we really liked it. And there's no question that Jennifer is a huge star, and it felt right. … It worked. Haters gonna hate. That's all I could do. I thought she was great.”
Going back to Sunday’s Elvis All-Star Tribute, the other big highlight -- though this was less of a surprise -- was another star from the American Idol world, Adam Lambert, whose natural lip-curl, slicked inky hair, and smoldering showmanship have often earned him comparisons to the King. (Lambert even mentored an Elvis-themed Idol episode in 2010, and has covered “Heartbreak Hotel” with Queen.) Just as Lambert has ably stepped into Freddie Mercury’s platform boots as Queen's touring frontman, on Sunday he figuratively filled Presley’s blue suede shoes (and literally wore a very natty pair, with matching cobalt nail varnish) during a pelvis-swiveling rendition of -- you guessed it -- “Blue Suede Shoes.” The performance proved that Lambert is still a master at making a song his own.
“He got into it. There were definitely several artists on that show that channeled Elvis, and he was one of them,” raved Ehrlich. “He just sold it.”
The original Singer Presents...Elvis, commonly referred to as the “'68 Comeback” special, aired on NBC on Dec. 3, 1968, marking Presley’s swaggering, black-leather-sheathed return to live television performing after a seven-year hiatus. The special not only effectively rebooted the rock ‘n’ roll legend’s flagging career at the time, but has long been considered the precursor to stripped-down musical series like MTV Unplugged and VH1 Storytellers. Said Ehrlich of his attempt to recreate the staging and vibe of NBC’s landmark 1968 taping, he explained, “We wanted to keep it in that vein and kind of transport people back to what that was: kids sitting at the edge of the stage. It was authentic, it really was, and I was very, very proud of the way we interpreted it.”
The full setlist for Sunday’s Elvis All-Star Tribute is below. The reissued soundtrack to Presley's original program, The Best of the ’68 Comeback Special, can be purchased here.
“Trouble”/ "Guitar Man" – Blake Shelton
“Hound Dog” – Shawn Mendes
“Burning Love” – Keith Urban
“Baby, What You Want Me to Do” – Keith Urban and Post Malone
“Jailhouse Rock” – John Fogerty
“Can’t Help Falling in Love” – Ed Sheeran
“Always on My Mind” – Kelsea Ballerini
“Heartbreak Hotel” – Jennifer Lopez
“One Night” – Darius Rucker
“Suspicious Minds” – Blake Shelton
“Love Me Tender” – Alessia Cara
“Memories” – Mac Davis
“A Little Less Conversation” – John Legend
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” – Little Big Town
“Blue Suede Shoes” – Adam Lambert
“Love Me” – Pistol Annies
“That’s All Right”/“Don’t Be Cruel”/“Blue Suede Shoes” – Mac Davis, Post Malone, Little Big Town, Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton
“How Great Thou Art”/“He Touched Me”/“You’ll Never Walk Alone” – Carrie Underwood and Yolanda Adams
“Little Sister” – Dierks Bentley
“It’s Now or Never” – Josh Groban
“If I Can Dream” – Elvis Presley, Post Malone, Shawn Mendes, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood