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On View : Master of Grammys

February 26, 1995|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How about this for a killer opening to Wednesday night's televised Grammy Awards?

Frank Sinatra strolls out on stage and says matter-of-factly, "As I was saying ... " Then he's interrupted by the orchestra playing "New York, New York." Cut to commercial.

Of course, this is a spoof of the notorious moment last year when Sinatra was cut off in the middle of a rambling commentary, provoking protests that the show's producers were rude to a legend.

"The audience would go wild --people would be talking about that for weeks," says Pierre Cossette, executive producer of the show for the last 24 years. "I can't think of a better way to start this year's show," the 25th anniversary of the awards being telecast.

He'll have to though. Sinatra nixed the idea.

A boisterous raconteur who relishes spinning tales of Grammy history, Cossette reiterated that neither he nor the Grammy organization--the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences--made the decision to pull the plug on Sinatra last year in New York.

"We were just doing what Sinatra's people said: 'Help him out, let's get him off,' " Cossette recalls in the Italian restaurant downstairs from his Beverly Hills office.

"At first Frank was just going to say what he says at the end of his show and get off. But he was so overwhelmed by the reception, he decided to stay for awhile," says Cossette. "His people felt he couldn't get off gracefully, so they wanted us to interrupt him with the music. Never saw anything like it on the show."

That's saying a lot for Cossette, who produced his first Grammy telecast in 1971. "Most of the shows go pretty smoothly, which is amazing when you consider all the potential for error with three hours' worth of performers and presenters, set changes, costume changes, etc.," Cossette says.

Through his Pierre Cossette Productions, the producer has a long list of credits that includes TV movies, specials and the hit Broadway musical "The Will Rogers Follies." But he's most strongly identified with the Grammy Awards show. Before 1971, there was no live Grammy Awards telecast, just an annual post-awards special on NBC.

The full Grammys show was no ratings plum in its early years. Unhappy with telecasting from Nashville in 1973, NBC backed out, but Cossette persuaded CBS to give it a try. The show has been with that network ever since, slowly building into a highly rated program.

Mike Greene, the Academy's president gives Cossette, a 64-year-old Canadian, all the credit. "The show wouldn't be what it is without him," he says.

This year, the Grammys, which has been jumping back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, returns to the Shrine Auditorium. The guest list of performers includes Tony Bennett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Babyface Edmonds and Bruce Springsteen.

Though the Grammy telecast gets big ratings, it also gets sound annual thrashings from some critics, who complain it is either slowly paced, too middle of the road or doesn't include enough classical, jazz and gospel content. Cossette, though, shrugs off the criticism.

"You can't please everybody and we have too many people to please," he says. "We have the network and advertisers who want ratings, which means hiring as many big pop names as possible. But we also have to cater to the public, which means pleasing a lot of people who don't know a lot about new, hip artists."

The one time Cossette attempted to please the critics, it backfired, he says. "For all those people who were complaining the show is too middle of the road, we did their kind of show in 1989," he says. "We had people who were new then, like Toni Childs, Melissa Etheridge, Lyle Lovett and Sinead O'Connor. It got more standing ovations than any show we've ever done--but it also got a low rating."

The most frequent criticism, though, is that the Grammy show isn't as lively as its chief rival, the annual American Music Awards telecast, which is geared to the young record-buying public.

"I've made a special thing of not watching that show," says Cossette. "A lot of the acts are the same as the acts on the Grammy show. It would drive me crazy to watch it."

So, which of his own shows does Cossette recall most fondly?

"Probably the second show--in New York in 1972," he says. "We had Bette Midler, who was a new artist. She had star written all over her. We had Lionel Richie and the Commodores opening the show and they had the place rocking. That show had incredible energy."

Cossette would still like to try some new things.

"We'd like to do the show over two nights--maybe two hours a night," he says. "There's so much we can't get on a three-hour show. Next year we'll probably switch away from theaters and do the show in an arena--probably either the Forum or Madison Square Garden. That would give it more of a concert feel and it also would let us have more seating space for all the people we have to turn away every year. We'd also like to make it more international, televising artists performing in various parts of the world."

"The 37th Annual Grammy Awards" airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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