Geoff Boucher
February 08, 2013 AT 06:13 PM EST

Justin Timberlake will be up first today as rehearsals continue for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, and the singer will know he’s good to go when he gets an approving nod from Ken Ehrlich, the executive producer who is calling the tune for Sunday night’s show just as he has for past 33 years. No, that’s not a typo — Ehrlich has been the gatekeeper of the Grammys stage since the 1980 edition of the show, and he’s the guiding hand behind the show’s signature mix-and-match approach to putting artists and songs together in fused fashion.

On that first February 1980 show, trophies went home with Donna Summer, Kenny Rogers, and Bob Dylan, who performed on the Grammys that night not because of the nomination but because of the credibility the new executive producer brought with him from the Chicago music scene. Times have changed –a Grammy for best disco recording won’t be presented during this Sunday night’s broadcast, for one thing, and there’s been a sharp decrease in both platinum records and polyester pants – but Ehrlich endures. In fact he’s thriving: The Grammys had record ratings last year (and for reasons that went beyond the fresh tragedy of Whitney Houston’s death).

The towering success of 2012 (the Grammys broadcast topped the Oscars audience for the first time) is a tough act to follow but EW asked Ehrlich to set aside mass appeal and talk about the show on a personal level – what are the moments he’s looking forward to most? Like the executive producer himself, the answers were at times sentimental, often unfiltered and always loyal first and foremost to live music and its possibilities…

NEXT: Q&A with Ken Ehrlich

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