‘Greatest Hits’ tackles musical eras with a fresh spin

Gerrick D. Kennedy
Los Angeles Times

For anyone who has ever watched the Grammys, the scene onstage was familiar. While the hit song being performed was recognizable, the artists were polar opposites, each from a different genre and era.

On this recent afternoon it was rootsy singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt and emerging soul singer Andra Day. Presiding over the left-field pairing was none other than Ken Ehrlich, who as longtime executive producer of the Grammys has become a sort-of maestro of the televised, cross-generational mash-up.

As the pair worked through Raitt’s Grammy-nominated hit, “Love Sneakin’ Up On You,” Day was unable to contain her excitement. She grew up listening to Raitt with her mother, she confessed, and she let out a shriek when Raitt moved through a guitar lick.

The performance is one of many set for Ehrlich’s latest production, ABC’s “Greatest Hits,” premiering Thursday. The series, over the course of six weeks, will take its lead from a formula Ehrlich perfected on the Grammys. It also hopes to tap into our love of yesteryear pop — a craze currently led by Spike’s hit show “Lip Sync Battle,” as well as the popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments from late-night host James Corden.

“Greatest Hits” has a rather strict focus. The show looks back at songs that have defined the past quarter-century of pop. There will be plenty of unique pairings shepherded by Ehrlich, but also performances by the artists who originated the hits.

And though he’s earned a reputation as a sort of mix-and-match artist, Ehrlich says there’s a method to his duet madness.

“I don’t think we wanted to reinvent the wheel with this,” Ehrlich said, seated inside an editing bay at a Hollywood studio as he worked to edit the show.

“We’re looking at this finite time in pop music, and what we tried to do is connect the dots,” he continued. “It’s summertime — people are looking for light entertainment. This is the kind of thing you can sit down and watch with a smile on your face.”

Each episode of “Greatest Hits” covers a five-year span of ubiquitous pop songs. Thursday’s premiere tackles 1980 to 1985, with subsequent episodes leading up to 2005.

A breadth of contemporary artists and heritage acts representing numerous genres will appear on the series, including Cee Lo Green, Coolio, Foreigner, Miguel, Pitbull, En Vogue, REO Speedwagon, Chicago, Hanson and Wilson Phillips.

Country singer Kelsea Ballerini and comedian Arsenio Hall will host, and ABC’s run culminates with a live show on Aug. 4. (Ehrlich says he’s not finished booking performers for the finale, for which tickets will be sold).

At the time of the interview, he was three weeks into post-production on the series, editing episodes from the “aggressive” shoot in May. A whopping 45 performances were filmed in 2 1/2 weeks.

To accommodate dozens of artists — many of whom are currently promoting projects or touring — on differing schedules, the show was taped out of order, with segments of multiple episodes filmed on a given day.

“It all came together. But it was tough,” Ehrlich said of the breakneck pace.

“The artists were really giving, in terms of being a part of it. It was really amazing. The right kind of artists just go with it. They are adventurous, and they like the idea that I’m not calling to just do “their latest” single. They get a chance to stretch ... and go outside their boundaries.”

“Greatest Hits” originally began three years ago when Ehrlich was developing a music series for ABC in which heritage acts would perform the hits that defined their recording career, then called “The Great American Comeback.”

“It was half of this idea, and it was a competition show,” Ehrlich explained. “The network didn’t buy it.”

ABC circled back to Ehrlich in January while he worked on this year’s Grammys to revisit the concept of heritage acts reprising their biggest hits, but this time the focus would be on a 25-year period. Also, the competition element would be dropped.

“We started laying the show out with what we wanted. The idea of core artists doing their own songs quickly morphed into including contemporary artists. It was very collaborative,” he said. “It’s been a good marriage at the network.”

Though deeply rooted in the past, the series tackles hits in fresh ways, whether it’s the originating artist performing an updated version of a signature tune, collaborations with a contemporary artist or newcomers paying tribute to their favorite acts.

The result is a mix of on-the-nose tributes, fun twists on old classics and Ehrlich’s signature multi-generational pairings.

Here’s what to expect: Jason Derulo will pay tribute to “his hero,” Michael Jackson, and Fifth Harmony looks to channel Destiny’s Child for a medley, complete with outfits inspired by the group. Country stars Little Big Town will tackle Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” while John Legend takes on Lauryn Hill’s beloved “Miseducation” album — a record he appeared on before finding fame.

Also look for Meghan Trainor to meet her childhood crushes, the Backstreet Boys, and LL Cool J and Wiz Khalifa to trade off on hits they released 18 years apart.

During a taping at CBS Studios in Studio City late last month, the mood was one of nostalgic celebration.

A group of older women inched their way to the stage when Boyz II Men emerged to perform hits from its breakout debut from 25 years ago, “Cooleyhighharmony.” A woman let out a shriek when member Wanya Morris embraced her between takes.

“The ’90s might have been one of the greatest eras in music,” member Nathan Morris said earlier backstage, as the group recounted its rise and detailed the stories behind the chart-toppers that defined pop-R&B that decade.

In a nearby dressing room, Montell Jordan, who left the music industry in 2010, still seemed taken aback that records like his 1995 No. 1 hit “This Is How We Do It” continue to thrill audiences, a song he will perform on “Greatest Hits.”

“I would have never thought it would have become this timeless thing,” Jordan said.

‘Greatest Hits’

9 p.m. Thursday

ABC (Channel 7)