In 1998, during the early days of the internet, what could be described as the first viral Grammy Awards ceremony took place at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Not one, not two, but three unscripted incidents occurred that evening, and a quarter-century later, they all still resonate in pop culture, topping bloggers’ flashback lists of most surprising Grammy moments and in at least one case inspiring T-shirts and memes.
And 25 years later, Ken Ehrlich, who produced the awards telecast from 1980 to 2020, is still being asked to talk about those moments from the 40th annual Grammys: when stage-rushers Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy and late Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard stole the show, and Aretha Franklin saved the show.
“I always was proud of my stage team and stage managers keeping cool. We had a job to do,” Ehrlich tells Yahoo Entertainment. “There’s a certain adrenaline rush where you just rise to the occasion or you don’t — and I think one of the things that people know about me and my team is that we rise to it. It’s part of what we do. … You roll with it, you respond to it, and you expect afterwards there will be criticism and a lot more people saying, ‘How did they f*** this up?’ than ‘God, they really handled this right!’ But that never bothered me.”
Two of 1998’s shocking Grammy moments were tied to the night’s two biggest winners: Bob Dylan, whose Time Out of Mind was named Album of the Year, and Shawn Colvin, whose “Sunny Came Home” won both Record and Song of the Year honors. But few people probably even know or care who won what that year. Instead, viewers remember that Dylan’s “Love Sick” performance and Colvin’s Song of the Year acceptance speech were respectively interrupted by the Sharpie-scrawled Portnoy’s flailing interpretive dance and by ODB’s Puff Daddy protest.
Soy Bomb, as he comically came to be known after this roughly 35 seconds of fame, was not a spontaneous stage-crasher, but actually a legitimate performance artist named Michael Portnoy. Portnoy, who belonged to an Andy Kaufman-esque, experimental comedy troupe in the ’90s that often bum-rushed other artists and comedians’ sets, called his unique brand of art “extreme participation” and explained that “Soy Bomb” was two-word poem that “represents dense nutritional life.” He was originally hired as one of many background “head-nodders” for Dylan’s Grammy performance, a staging decision that wasn’t Ehrlich’s.
“I didn’t object to it. In fact, I kind of liked it,” Ehrlich recalls. “But I don’t want to get anyone in trouble and I don’t want to point a finger, but the fact of the matter is — and you might get a different story out of others — the Dylan camp were the ones that suggested having people standing around Bob for this performance. They said, ‘We’ll provide the people, because then we will be sure that there’s not going to be an incident, and that everything is going to work out fine, and that Bob will feel comfortable. We’ll tell him that these are people he may not know, but they’re fans and they’re going to be respectful.’
“They were kind of arranged in a 180 around him, so that the front [part of the stage] was clear. And it happened, you know, right in the middle of that performance,” Ehrlich continues. “And whether you think [35 seconds] is a long time — which I do! — we were so taken aback and so stunned that there were probably 20 of those seconds where we weren’t sure that it wasn’t something that was planned. … I don’t remember, honestly, whether I said, ‘Get that mother***er off the stage!’ or not. I might have. I probably at one point said, ‘Um, anybody know what’s going on out there?’ Which is maybe not the brightest statement I’ve ever made as a producer.”
One of the reasons that it took Ehrlich’s crew (along with most of the people watching at home) to realize that Soy Bomb’s dance solo wasn’tall part of the act was Dylan’s reaction — or non-reaction. “Bob didn’t do anything; he was oblivious,” Ehrlich chucklingly says of the cool-as-a-cucumber rock legend, who just kept on singing and playing with only the slightest expression of annoyance flickering across his poker face.
But eventually a “hero” took action. “There was a longstanding, trustworthy stage manager whose name is Gary Natoli, who had done the show for several years and who I trusted and liked a lot. He was the one that actually went out and grabbed the guy and got him off,” Ehrlich says.
After Portnoy pulled this thankfully harmless stunt, the Recording Academy opted to not press charges against him (although Portnoy wasn’t paid for the gig, either). In hindsight, this could have been a terrifying security-breaching moment, instead of an amusing and silly one, ifPortnoy had been a stalker with dangerous intentions. But Ehrlich points out that in the more innocent and naïve ‘90s, no one was scared or all that worried when Soy Bomb broke out his bizarre choreography.
“Honestly — putting [earlier music tragedies like] John Lennon and Altamont to the side for a moment — the truth of the matter is, in the context of looking at that in 2023 versus 1998, it was a simpler time,” Ehrlich muses. “It was probably a much more benign time. We live in a much more violent world right now, and I think that colors so much of the way we interpolate events today. I’ve seen the world change, and I certainly haven’t seen a change for the better with regards to safety and security. … I mean, how many awards shows have there been since then where at the party afterwards there’s a shooting? It’s sad, but that’s the world we live in now. It unfortunately has turned dark in a lot of ways.
“And I’ve never talked to Bob about it. I’ve had him on shows [that I have produced] since, and a couple of his people have told me it was not the most pleasant experience. But Bob has this kind of limited public persona. And I don’t think he felt that this was a career-maker or -breaker. I think it was put in context of ‘Hey, it’s something that happens in on in a live show.’ He probably wouldn’t want to happen again, but I think he took it in stride. It’s never come up as a subject.”
As for Portnoy, he never attempted something like this again – let’s face it, this stunt would be pretty hard to top — but in 2012, when Yahoo Entertainment asked him if he’d ever crash an awards show or other major televised event again for an art piece, he did cryptically answer: “If the delivery of all the nation’s programming were confined to just one Jumbotron in the heart of the country, I might consider occupying a few square feet in the lower right corner of the screen as a kind of living punctuation.”
But Portnoy wasn’t the only stage-crasher on this chaotic evening in ‘98. Later, when Colvin won the award for Song of the Year and was approaching the podium with her producer and co-writer, John Leventhal, ODB rushed onstage, kissed perplexed presenter Erykah Badu on the cheek, told the audience to “please calm down,” and proceeded to protest that Puff Daddy & the Family’s No Way Out had beat Wu-Tang Forever for Best Rap Album (a non-televised category).
“I went and bought me an outfit today that cost me a lot of money, because I figured that Wu-Tang was gonna win,” ODB, whose real name was Russell Tyrone Jones, blurted. “I don’t know how you all see it, but when it comes to the children, Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children. Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best. I want you all to know that this is ODB, and I love you all. Peace.”
“To be honest with you, when he came up and rushed the stage, we had no idea who it was,” Ehrlich admits. “Maybe we should have known who it was, but we didn’t. But then we [figured it out] very quickly. He had an agenda, and he expressed his feelings and said what he had to say. And then [stagehand] just reached up, pulled him off, and then we went on with it.”
Some fans speculated that ODB had misheard Badu and thought she’d said “Sean Combs” (Puffy’s real name) instead of “Shawn Colvin.” But in an interview with Howard Stern the day after the incident, ODB claimed he hadn’t even realized that an award had just been announced, and he had no idea that he’d spoiled what should have been the biggest night of Colvin’s career. “I didn’t know. Oh no! I didn’t know what type of award,” he insisted to Stern, seeming genuinely contrite and embarrassed. The rapper, who died in 2004, later apologized to Colvin.
“It obviously rattled Shawn terribly. It affected [her and Leventhal]. It threw her off. She wasn’t expecting that. You don’t expect that,” Ehrlich says of the singer-songwriter, who scratched her head and uttered, “I’m confused!” once ODB was escorted off the stage and she finally had a chance to speak. “When I think about things like this happening, that is what bothers me the most: I hate it when anything [distracting] happens, because then that became the stories of the show instead. It diminishes the accomplishment of the artist. These kinds of tangential events — whether it’s what J.Lo is wearing or why Michael Jackson is not in his seat — all contribute to taking away from [the winners].”
Fortunately, Colvin got another opportunity to give a proper speech, when she won Record of the Year. “She handled it well,” says Ehrlich, and years later, she seems to have a sense of humor about her place in awards-show/pop-culture history. “I like to say I was pre-Kanye/Taylor. I started it all,” she joked to Billboard in 2018.
As for ODB’s place in history, his “Wu-Tang is for the children” declaration became a slogan and eventually spawned a clothing line. (Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA is known to post photos from fans with their kids wearing the apparel.) And the catchphrase actually had a connection to a much more serious and heartwarming story: Just days before the 1998 Grammys, Ol’ Dirty Bastard had been in the studio, when he witnessed a car accident outside. He raced to the scene and helped lift a Ford Mustang off a 4-year-old girl who had trapped underneath, and he even secretly visited the child several times when she was hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns, according to an MTV report.
“He meant [that slogan] so much. We used to talk about that all the time,” RZA told Yahoo Entertainment in 2021. “Even though there was profanity in the language, he was like, ‘Nah, we’re giving people the real when others [are] giving them the fake. And so we gotta be for the children.’ I just thought that that was so enlightening. … Don’t judge the book by the cover. Dig deeper.”
Obviously, Ehrlich was accustomed to dealing with curveballs from his decades of TV producing, and that experience served him well in 1998. And one ‘98 situation that all pundits think – to use Ehrlich’s own colorful words – he didn’t “f*** up” and “really handled right” was when he sprang into action that same evening after Luciano Pavarotti, who was supposed to sing “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys, called in sick at the last minute. Ehrlich considered asking either Steve Wonder or Sting to step in, “but then I remembered that two nights before, Aretha Franklin had sung ‘Nessun Dorma’ for Pavarotti at [the] MusiCares [Person of the Year gala],” he recalls. He convinced Franklin to fill in for Pavarotti, and the result was one of the most stunning television performances of her career and one of the greatest Grammy performances of all time.
Franklin was set to appear on the Grammy telecast to promote the movie Blues Brothers 2000, and she was already at Radio City Music Hall. So, Ehrlich lurched into crisis-control mode. “I ran up two flights of stairs. I grabbed [Pavarotti producer] Phil Ramone, who had produced MusiCares that year. I ran up to this cramped little broom closet of a dressing room. We knocked on the door, walked in,” he says. “And she’s sitting there. Frankly, sitting there eating fried chicken, which did not surprise me, because I had often shared food with her. And I just said to her, ‘Look, we have a problem. How would you like to sing twice tonight?’ And she sat there and one of those ‘Aretha looks’ that I would get from time to time, like, ‘What are you saying to me?’ And then she said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’”
Still, some adjustments had to be made. “She said, ‘But Ken, what about the key? Three keys. I think he sings it three keys different from me,’” Ehrlich continues. “So, we scrambled, and we got Pavarotti’s conductor, who was there and had learned at the same time that Pavarotti wasn’t coming. And we found a boombox — we always recorded rehearsals and things, but this was in the days of cassettes, you know — we put it on the counter in the dressing room. And she spent the next 45 minutes working with Pavarotti’s conductor. We tested the key and she said, ‘I can do it. It won’t be easy, but I want to do this.’”
Later, when Franklin saw the set with the massive orchestra ready to go, she told Ehrlich, “This is gonna be fun!” Ehrlich had a feeling it was going to be special as well, so he made a rare departure from his usual station as a “troll underneath the stage” to witness the moment firsthand. “I stood at the side of the stage; I wanted to see the audience reaction when she finished,” he explains. “And honestly, there was a stunned silence for a minute — and then all of a sudden, the applause erupted.”
Recalling the performance itself, Ehrlich marvels, “You can almost see it in her [when you watch the footage] — she gains confidence during this number. I didn’t realize that until I watched it a few times. She’s not tentative, because Aretha’s never tentative about anything, but as she sings the song, she just gets more and more confident in that. At the end, she ‘Aretha-fies’ the ending, and it’s like, ‘I now own this.’”
Arguably, this was the 1998 Grammys’ most memorable moment overall – more so than the Soy Bomb or ODB cameos — ending the ceremony on a literal and figurative high note and keeping music’s biggest night from becoming a gimmicky trainwreck a la the MTV Video Music Awards, where debacles like the above-mentioned Kanye-vs.-Taylor are the norm. But Ehrlich ultimately sees the appeal and importance of both the trainwrecks and the triumphs, because it’s all part of the magic of live, without-a-net TV.
“Every show has these moments that are just truly spontaneous. I disagree with people who say [award shows are] all about the ‘car crash’; it’s just really about the unpredictability and the fact that it’s just not planned,” says Ehrlich. “We look for those [wacky, buzzy moments] too, because they are part of what makes these things interesting – so, there’s a dichotomy there for me, internally. But it was all historic. It’s what people remember. So, it’s not that I want to bury it, because it’s all part of what happens when you do live television.”
You can watch the entire epic, chaotic 40th Annual Grammy Awards in the video below. The 65th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony will take place at Los Angeles’s Crypto.com Arena this Sunday and will air on CBS and Paramount+ at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon