frenzy and finesse backstage at the grammys with wonder, hancock dolby and jones
from Keyboard Jun 1985 by Bob Doerschuk

February 26: England and America join hands to rock the Grammys (L to R): Herbie Hancock on Yamaha KX1, Thomas Dolby and Stevie wonder on Kurzweil 50, and Howard Jones on Yamaha KX5.
February 26: England and America join hands to rock the Grammys (L to R): Herbie Hancock on Yamaha KX1, Thomas Dolby and Stevie wonder on Kurzweil 50, and Howard Jones on Yamaha KX5.

There was a quizzical look on Herbie Hancock's face as he poked through his bass line. After a moment, he turned toward Stevie Wonder, asking what was happening at that point in the arrangement. Stevie responded by playing Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" theme on the Kurzweil. "Oh, right, right, right," Herbie said, turning back to his Memorymoog.

Stevie, Herbie, Dolby, and Howard Jones were bunched together atop a three-tiered riser, surrounded by more than fifteen keyboards. The riser was surrounded by technicians and camera operators, scurrying across the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Out front, empty rows of seats stretched toward distant walls. It was Tuesday afternoon, February 26, the final runthrough for the all-star synthesizer quartet performance at the 1985 Grammy Awards festivities. In a few hours the elite of the pop music world would fill those seats, and mainstream America would be face to face with the sights and sounds of electronic music technology.

Nothing comes easily at the Grammys. Performer schedules must be juggled, egos salved, snags untangled. Sets must glide in and out of place on cue, despite the claustrophobic jumble of wire, lights, and gawkers backstage. So it was with this stellar combo. Yet, despite a near disaster just before Stevie Wonder's solo appearance and a heart-stopping practical juke on Herbie Hancock, it happened, and viewers throughout the world were exposed to the visual and auditory wonders of commercial rock synthesis.

Maybe the simplest part of the project was the idea itself, which came from Ken Ehrlich, a producer and writer with Pierre Cossette Productions, the company that organized the Grammy broadcast. Ehrlich, though, cites Hancock as the sources of his inspiration. "I was doing a PBS series in Chicago called Soundstage when I first worked with Herbie," he says. "Around 1975 he and Chick Corea appeared on the show. It was the first time they had ever performed together. They each did their own set, then they got together and did about a ten-minute version of 'Someday My Prince Will Come,' which started with them both at one acoustic piano, and ended with them at their separate electronic keyboard setups. It was such a nice integration of styles and such an effective use of the instruments that from that point forth I wanted to do something like it on a grander scale."

The multi-keyboard extravaganza concept was obviously on Ehrlich's mind two years ago, when he put together a Grammy segment featuring Ray Charles, Count Basie, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis at four grand pianos. And last year, when Hancock stole the show with a rousing version of "Rockit," the notion of showcasing the synthesizer for the general audience on the Grammys proved viable. It seemed natural, then, that he turn to Herbie first with the idea of organizing a superstar multi-keyboard collaboration of some sort for the '85 show.

"Ken had a visual idea of how he could incorporate the lighting and camera technique into some kind of musical input," Hancock says. "He mentioned the idea of doing some kind of a medley, but as far as which tunes would be used and how they would be presented, that would be left completely up to the musicians." No time limit was imposed in the selection; Pierre Cossette Productions merely let Hancock know where the performance would fall in the sequence of Grammy segments, and that it would be followed by a commercial.

Given the prospects of national exposure, the element of creative freedom, and Herbie's position in the industry, it didn't take long to assemble a lineup of musicians. Stevie quickly came aboard, since he had been working with hancock on some independent projects. Then, in order to represent the British contributions to rock synthesis, a number of English artists were considered including Keith Emerson. In the end, Dolby and Jones signed up. For a while, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics was also slated to be a part of the performance, but several weeks before the show he backed out.

When asked exactly how he got involved with this synthesizer summit, Junes laughs and answers, "That's really a bit of a mystery to me. I'm not as well known in America as Herbie or Tom or obviously Stevie Wonder, so I was extremely delighted to be asked. I think Herbie and the others just like my music, and some people must have caught my shows, so they knew that I could cut it as a player." Dolby remembers that Hancock himself telephoned with the invitation. "We discussed the concept a bit," Thomas says, "and I decided to get involved. I was very pleased to hear that Stevie Wonder and Howard jones were getting involved too."

The next step involved figuring out what to play. Some thought was given to composing an original work, but that idea was discarded as too time-comsuming. Ehrlich had suggested incorporating a few British and American patriotic themes to emphasize the groups' international flavor. The musicians ultimately decided to keep that idea for a finale, and to precede it with a medley of excerpts from their collective catalog of hit songs, one theme from each artist.

The actual work began when Hancock went to London, where he took time off from a Miles Davis project to meet with Dolby and Jones. "We put down the basic track," Dolby says, "after finding a tempo that the hooks of out respective songs could fit onto." Jones agrees, adding, "We decided to go for a groove, all the way from start to finish, that every thing would connect with quite easily." Using a battery of MIDIed instruments, including an Oberheim DMX and DSX, a Roland MSQ-700, a Yamaha DX1, several YamahaDX7s, and E-mu Emulator II, and a Fairlight CMI, they laid down bits of Hancock's "Rockit" [from FutureShock, Columbia, FC-33814], Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" [from Golden Age Of Wireless, Capitol, ST-12271], and Jones' "What is Love" [from Human's Lib, Elektra, 60346-1], capped with digital sampled drum rolls and synthetic brass fanfares to "America The Beautiful" and "God Save The Queen." Because Hancock didn't have his instruments in England, he would redo the "Rockit" section on his own setup after returning to the States.

The plan was then to send the tape to Wonder in Los Angeles, where he would add his contribution just before the Grammys. Originally it was though that Stevie would pick "Love Light In Flight," from his soundtrack to The Woman In Red [Motown, 6108]. But, apparently felling that "Love Light" was a bit too laid back for this medley, he chose an unreleased new song, "Go Home."

It was in Wonderland, Stevie's studio, that the idea was hatched for kicking the medley off with a human computer dialog. Larry Duhart, Hancock's keyboard engineer, describes the scene. "Herbie, Stevie, Bob Bralove [Wonder's chief engineer], and I were trying to figure out how to make the introduction more exciting. We figured that since this was all about computers and synthesizers, why not set it up so the public sees the computer tell us what to do? So everyone sampled their voice into an Emulator II, and we used these voices as input stimulus. Bob typed in the actual phrases for the computer to say in Herbie's or Thomas' voice, for example. So onstage, when the computer asked Herbie to identify himself, and Herbie would say his name live, you hear the computer answering him as if it were emulating his voice, logging him in as a human unit."

But there was trouble in Wonderland. "The basic tape had been recorded in England on a 24-track digital machine," Duhart says, "but Stevie has a 32-track machine in his studio, and the clock frequencies are different. All the tracks were filled, so there wasn't enough room to ping-pong. Obviously they had to transfer or go to analog, which they didn't want to do because Stevie's studio is digital. They had SMPTE, so they could have taken the SMPTE, put it through a SMPTE reader, bounced tracks onto another machine in sync, and ping-ponged them back. they could have taken eight tracks off, combined them, and then brought them back to two, because you can do that with digital. But they didn't think of it." In the end, the problem was solved by sending the tape to the L.A. Record Plant studio, which has a Sony 24-track and a Mitsubishi 32-track. the quartet delegated an engineer to do a direct transfer between the two, then, in Duhart's words, "crossed their fingers." Luckily, the transfer was a complete success.

Then there was the Accident.

Why are these men laughing? Stevie Wonder(L) is amused.  Herbie Hancock (R) is relieved.  Days later, America learns why.
Why are these men laughing? Stevie Wonder(L) is amused. Herbie Hancock (R) is relieved. Days later, America learns why.

On the eve of the Grammys, the tribes were gathering in Los Angeles. Jones flew in from England just for the broadcast, Dolby was in town working on Joni Mitchell's new album, and Hancock, exhausted, flew in from new York. With only an hour's sleep the night before, he joined his colleagues at Wonderland, where the finishing touched would be put on the tape. From the moment he walked in, something seemed odd to him.

"There were four or five cameras set up there," Herbie recalls. "I asked some of the technicians what they were doing, and they said, 'We don't know. We were just hired to be here.' I assumed that the Grammy people wanted to document what we were doing."

Then Stevie announced that he had a new device he wanted to demonstrate. Two Japanese executive types were on hand with an unfamiliar gadget they called a Sony PCM 000 audio signal enhancer. Stevie explained to Herbie that the PCM 000 allowed him to access the digital tape recorder in the control booth though his Versabraille, made by Telesensory Systems, is a braille computer system that can be used to control external computers. On this fateful day it was connected to the mystery machine by an RS-232 cord.

Hancock was suspicious. "I asked what the difference was between this setup and a regular remote," he says. "Stevie said, 'This thing does everything!' I figured maybe it could do track assignments, which normally you can only do from a mixing board. Stevie had already put his tune on tape, but now he said, 'I gotta check this out.' He went out to the studio to just unwind the tape and play it back from the Versabraille, but when he hit the command, the engineer said, 'I think we have a problem.' Stevie got the readout from the Versabraille, and suddenly he said 'Oh, no!' he grabbed his head and fell onto his knees. The engineer told me what had happened; this thing had erased all the tracks for about two seconds at the beginning of Stevie's tune!"

Panic instantly ensued. the Sony representatives were unresponsive to Hancock's frantic questions; neither spoke English. Herbie desperately dredged up the few Japanese words he had picked up on his thirteen tours there, but made no headway. "It seemed to me that the only thing we could do was to redo the whole thing from Stevie's song on," he says. "Either that, or maybe that section could be redone and merged. All I knew was it was real late, and everybody was tired. I wasn't looking forward to sitting there in Stevie's studio while he redid all of his tracks. And he had done a lot of tracks on that song."

Mercifully, Stevie waited only a few moments before telling Herbie that he had just joined a select group in the media world - like Donna Mills, Stacy Keach, and O.J. Simpson, he was a victim of another knee-slapper from TV's Bloopers And Practical Jokes. Wonder, who had been set up by his brother, a few weeks before, had vowed to "get" someone in return. The Hancock episode aired last March. No word on whether Herbie is stalking his own victim at present.

Once the aftershocks had settled it became known that the Japanese Sony reps were actually American actors, each with a native command of English, and that the diabolical PCM 2000 was actually an empty box, fashioned at the Bloopers office by Bob Bralove from spare LEDs, 8" floppy disk drives, Sony labels, and so on.

The last of the taping was actually completed on the Friday and Saturday before the show. But several other hurdles posed themselves. For example, what instruments would be used onstage, and where would they come from? After extensive discussion between musician reps, television exec, and manufacturers, arrangements were made by which all but two of the manufacturer agreed to provide instruments free of charge for the broadcast. In exchange for this favor, the musicians persuaded the network not to follow their frequent practice of "black taping," or masking out the manufacturer logos, anon the instruments, and agreed to let the cameras shoot them playing a predetermined selection of those instruments. Sometimes this made for some tricky choreography, resulting in a number of shots where one of more musicians would be playing a keyboard that wasn't even on the tape. This was made a bit easier by the fact that the performance wasn't live; like a number of other artists on the Grammy broadcast who were lipsyncing or singing live to a pre-recorded instrumental track, Hancock, Wonder, Dolby, and Jones were miming along to their tape, and were therefore not bound to correlate every audible note with its actual source instrument.

Even after all these arrangements had been made, there was one last minute near disaster. It happened on the night of the Grammys. The show was being broadcast live throughout most of the country, but each event, each musical number and presentation, had been thoroughly rehearsed. the backstage area was crawling with stars: Leonard Bernstein rubbed elbows with Julian Lennon in the Green Room. Cyndi Lauper proudly steered her mother and Hulk Hogan through the crowd. A tuxedo-garbed aide dashed toward an exit, calling to a colleague, "I have to go get Diana Ross a Fatburger." And John Denver was onstage, smiling at the camera and getting the show on the road precisely on schedule at 5 o'clock.

There was only one problem. I the crowded office of Pierre Cossette Productions, alarm was spreading rapidly: "Where is Stevie Wonder? Stevie Wonder is on in fifteen minutes!" According to the schedule Wonder was to be onstage at 5:16, singing " I Just Called To Say I Love You," but while other performers had been hanging out and relaxing well in advance of their appearances, the elusive Stevie was missing. Later we would learn why: Somehow he had not been told until that day that his vocal with the quartet would be run though vocoder, so he wanted to take some time to mull over possible changes in how he might sing. In the end, he decided more of less to wing it. Unfortunately, this meant that he only left his hotel and plunged into rush hour traffic at 4:30.

The minutes ticked by. Phones were ringing, collars loosening, voices hollering. Finally, at 5:08, the door burst open and Wonder strode in, wearing red swat pants and a white shirt, amidst a grim hustling entourage. Pierre Cossette employees frantically waved people out of the way shouting "keep the aisle clear!" Wonder and company disappeared into a side office. Seconds later another group of assistants dashed in with Stevie's wardrobe.

At 5:11 Laurie Anderson and Ray Davies ambled onstage to present the award for the best music video. Stevie would be on next. The Cossette office cum dressing room rattled with activity behind its locked door.

At 5:12 the door burst open, and Stevie Wonder, resplendent in white tux and dark pants, was rushed out. His aides clustered silently around him, and his brother fastened Stevie's cuff links as they jogged toward the stage.

Four minutes later, Denver beamed at the cameras, whipped an arm toward the rising curtain, and introduced "Stevie Wonder!" The audience applauded, but in Pierre Cossette's headquarters an exhausted battalion whooped and cheered.