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All work, no applause

Memorable moments don't come without practice. OK, that was `Beautiful.' Now, again.

February 10, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

WITH his weathered guitar and shaggy locks, James Blunt has the look of London's most handsome busker. So on Thursday, as he sang his hit "You're Beautiful" over and over on a small pedestal stage at Staples Center, it was easy to blur your eyes and imagine he was the guy who warbles for coins amid the oblivious bustle of a train platform.

All around Blunt, an army of workers was busy preparing for Sunday's 49th Annual Grammy Awards and after a long day of stars in street clothes practicing their hits, plenty of people in the building were only mildly interested in the Brit who has a shot at taking home the best new artist trophy.

As Blunt sang, one of the show's producers munched on carrots, a nearby security guard scanned the sports page and a squad of publicists studied the shimmer of their BlackBerry screens.

The good-natured Blunt also had a bit of sag in his shoulders; the producers had told him that he would have to play a slightly shortened version of his song and he fretted about the effect on his timing. That, and the magnitude of the Grammys, had Blunt thinking he might down a few pre-show beers on Sunday to take the edge off.

"I just hope," he said, "that I don't throw up halfway through the song."

In that event, he'll probably be getting a dry cleaning bill from Herb Alpert, whose assigned seat is right next to the circular white stage where Blunt will sing. That tiny stage is at the center of the Staples floor; it's a new fixture this year to add some intimacy to an event that is as small and subtle as an aircraft carrier. The new main stage design is all sleek curves and bright red tubing that vaguely has the retro-futuristic look of an early 1980s jukebox.

That jukebox will play on CBS and, in the key categories, the stars to watch are Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks and John Mayer along with newcomers Blunt, Gnarls Barkley and Corinne Bailey Rae. The show will open with a reunion of the Police, who will perform one of their early hits to commemorate their 30th anniversary, and a centerpiece moment will be a tribute to the late James Brown.

On Thursday and Friday, the arena was a hive of activity as plans were polished, numbers were rehearsed and huge confetti blowers were wheeled in for the closing performance of "Snow" by the Peppers.

On Friday, the timing was ironed out for the Brown tribute, which features a special moment: Danny Ray, the emcee who introduced Brown at his shows since the early 1960s, will pad across the stage and drape his old boss' famous shimmering cape on the shoulders of Chris Brown, the dynamic teenage singer and dancer.

Also, a big-name star will rise up from beneath the stage to belt out James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's Man's World," a show-stopper that producers are especially giddy about. Who? Well, we can tell you who it isn't: Michael Jackson, who has long gushed that James Brown was his musical role model. Jackson was invited a few weeks ago by half-hearted producers, who seemed a bit relieved when the mercurial star sent word back that he couldn't make it.

There's a large contingent of planners and idea people who piece together the music moments at the Grammys. But right in the middle of it all is Ken Ehrlich, the compact, bearded general of the operation who shrugs and says his job is "a lot of fun" -- and then refers to his quadruple heart bypass last year as "the old four-bagger." He is soft-spoken but usually gets his way with mule stubbornness and the surprisingly close connections he has to the artists who have crossed his stage since he began with the Grammys in 1980.

A few months ago, Ehrlich's producer peers honored him with a career "visionary" award, and although that sounds like a pretty insider ceremony, no less than Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Bonnie Raitt showed up to sing his praises from the dais.

Ehrlich, fellow executive producer John Cossette and director Walter Miller must each tend to the needs of thin-skinned superstars and a fickle national audience.

Last year, they were crestfallen when "American Idol" hammered the first hour of the Grammy broadcast in head-to-head ratings. This year, they and the Recording Academy have surrendered a bit to the times and added an "Idol"-like competition to the awards show. Fan votes on the Grammy website will pick a young female singer who will perform during the broadcast with good-soldier Timberlake, who already proved at the Super Bowl a few years ago that he is a willing straight-man for stunt TV.

Academy President Neil Portnow puts a good face on the concession to "Idol" thinking, saying the celebration of the unknown talent fits the Grammy aspiration to foster music in education and young lives. "Excitement and interest in music and engagement by the public in its discovery is one of our goals and has been," he said.

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