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Meet the Colorado artist who makes the Grammys

January 25, 2018 Updated: January 28, 2018 at 7:29 pm
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John Billings, the “Grammy Man” works in his Ridgway, Colo., shop Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Billings, with the help of his three employees, builds all the Grammy Awards by hand, about 350 this year for the 60th annual Grammy Awards. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

RIDGWAY - The Grammy is not John Billings' favorite.

More than music's most coveted prize, the ponytailed creator prefers the John R. Wooden Award, the trophy given to college basketball's best male player each year.

Not that Billings is much of a sports fan.

On the contrary, he digs music, as evidenced by the hundreds of records he's collected since the '60s and keeps at his house, not far from his modest workshop here in the San Juan Mountains. More evidence are his paintings hanging in his office: Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are departures from his first subjects of dead Indians.

John Billings, the "Grammy Man" works in his Ridgway, Colo., shop Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Billings, with the help of his three employees, builds all the Grammy Awards by hand, about 350 this year for the 60th annual Grammy Awards. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

"I loved (painting) hands, so I thought, 'Wow, guitar players, perfect,'" says Billings, who looks at Dylan's painting and remembers the artist on stage accepting the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. That was the first time Billings cried in his 41 years of making the Grammys.

He loves hands and what hands can do. And that's why the John. R. Wooden Award is his favorite: It showcases that full capability.

Five players stand on a base, each in a different position, each with different hair textures from the old tools Billings uses between his hard, grimy fingers, each with different ripples in their jerseys and shorts, each with legs and arms cast separately from Billings' bronze molds and soldered on to the bodies that are also grammium, Billings' patented metal.

While made of the same material as the Grammy, the John R. Wooden Award is much more complex. "Really, really hands-on," Billings says between drags on his American Spirit. "Detailed."

Reject pieces of the John R. Wooden Award sit ready to be melted again in John Billings' Ridgway, Colo. shop Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

That's not to say the stars will receive some lesser object Sunday night at Madison Square Garden during the 60th Grammy Awards. They'll be holding something that took 15 hours of tender labor, ending with each gramophone's gold-plating.

A slight crack on the horn or blemish on the stand is enough for Billings to scrap it.

"We dissect these parts to get them as best we can, and that's all because of pride," says Patrick Moore, whom Billings added to his four-man team when the former drywaller needed a job during the recession. Now Moore does much of the casting, lending Billings, 71, a break from the 650-degree metal that has left his arms a mosaic of scars.

John Billings' paintings of rock guitarist hang in his Ridgway, Colo., shop among the Grammy license plates he has collected over the years. "I loved (painting) hands, so I thought, 'Wow, guitar players, perfect,' " says Billings. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

The Grammys are the product of the centuries-old craft that Billings learned from Bob Graves, the first maker, who operated out of his California garage. When Graves was on his deathbed in '86, the apprentice promised to continue the ways that birthed the Grammy: the mold-making and casting, the grinding and sanding, the polishing and hand-done detail.

So Billings has done in this dimly lit space, filled with cigarette smoke and antique benches and equipment. Many John R. Wooden Award winners would have to duck inside the 2,000-square-foot place.

The Grammys again will come out of Ridgway, where Billings arrived 25 years ago to swap Los Angeles life for small-town life, where Gov. John Hickenlooper during Western Slope visits has been known to take his people - "You won't believe what happens here!" he tells them - and where so much more happens.

"Everybody calls me the Grammy man," Billings says. "I do so much more."

Holding on to fading art

The John R. Wooden Award is somewhat personal for Billings. Before he discovered his passion in Graves' garage, the son of a beer truck driver was out of high school and working at UCLA's loading dock. This was a lunch spot for the legendary coach who couldn't have predicted that a trophy would be named in his honor, or that the self-described "snot-nosed hippie" would be the one making it.

Stock photo of The Grammys award 

In those days, Billings also worked at a laundromat and made jewelry. Some of those pieces are stocked in drawers in his cluttered shop, aka Grammy Row, where one poster shows Johnny Cash flipping the bird.

Nearby is a model space capsule - a reference for the mold Billings is working on. He is to craft desk lamps for the SpaceX executives on the mission to bring astronauts to the International Space Station.

The irony isn't lost on Billings. "They came to me, with my 100-year-old tools, to make something that hasn't even happened yet."

Ducks from the 1978 movie "Convoy" line a shelf in John Billings' shop ready for the next step of the trophy-making process Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The duck trophies are popular among truckers and Billings' best money maker. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Surrounded by his black and bent ladles and pots, he calls himself "a dinosaur." He is a mold maker, he's proud to say. And while he's taught his workers a lot, he has not taught them how to make a mold.

"Why?" he asks. "They would never make a living making molds."

Like the art that might leave this mass-producing, 3D-printing world, Billings fears the Grammy might one day leave its home. It's easy, and troubling, for him to imagine the Recording Academy going with someone else, maybe someone cheaper or quicker or both, someone who "wears his suit and drinks champagne all day in some office," someone who might outsource production to some factory in China.

A picture of Bonnie Raitt and John Billings hangs on the wall of his Ridgway, Colo., shop Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, with other memories from the Grammy Awards. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

He doesn't say how much he's paid per Grammy, but his frustration is apparent. Selling Grammy souvenirs would be an idea, if it weren't for the ban in his contract. "It's like pulling teeth with them," he says.

His biggest money-maker? The nickel-plated duck seen smoking a cigar on the hood of a truck in the 1978 movie "Convoy." Truckers everywhere treasure it, Billings says.

"I just got my guys insurance, health insurance, and if it wasn't for the duck, man, I don't know," he says. "I make money on the duck. I don't make money on the Grammys. They just beat me up."

Patience the key

Two or three John R. Wooden Awards are made every year: one for the player, another for the school and another upon the TV sponsor's request. That pales in comparison with the demand of the Recording Academy, which sends Billings a rundown of nominees in advance.

"Their expectation on how fast we can get done, I mean, by the time the stuff gets to John, it's like they're ready for it to all get done," says Kevin Hays, who washed dishes at the cafe across the street before Billings hired him to polish Grammys.

Billings holds a memory from last year's Grammy Awards, a guest pass to the 2017 Person of the Year gathering for Tom Petty. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

The annual order of about 500 - to be given to American and Latin artists, producers and engineers - can be daunting. But the guys don't rush. If their boss suspects they are, he scolds them.

Patience. That's what they've learned from Billings. For practice, he'll have them over to fly fish on the water by his house.

"My older brother was a deaf kid. I wear hearing aids, but he was born deaf," Billings says. "In the '50s, people were afraid of deaf people. They treated 'em like lepers, so he was not allowed to play with the kids in the neighborhood. The parents would freak out. So he spent all his time in his bedroom, doing those model airplanes. He had patience. I learned from him patience. And detail."

Billings has grand memories of attending the Grammys most every year - meeting B.B. King and the Allman Brothers, for instance, and after parties at the Biltmore Hotel. But he's not attending this weekend. He doesn't want to deal with the city.

"Oh well," he says, pointing to his hearing aid. "I have problems with crowds these days."

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