Iconic music industry award made in muted style in Ridgway
Although Hollywood discovered Ridgway in the 1970s when the original “True Grit” and other western movies used the Old West feel of the community to their advantage, the one-stoplight town still feels far from the glitz and glamor of L.A.
And yet, one of the most coveted prizes in the music industry — the Grammy award — is manufactured quietly in downtown Ridgway.
Far from the lights, the cameras and definitely the action of Hollywood, John Billings has been working behind the scenes for the past 30 years casting and engraving the instantly recognizable gold-plated gramophones — an annual award given by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which has brought some of the biggest names in music history to tears upon receiving one.
That’s the part he loves best.
“When you see people kiss and hug and cry when they get one of these things you make,” Billings said, “that’s why you love it.”
But the job itself isn’t glamorous, he explained. “You get scratches and burns and you spend hours making just one.”
As a child, Billings used to enjoy watching his neighbor, Bob Graves, cast the original Grammy awards in his garage in Van Nuys, Calif.
Later, he found an interest in making jewelry, then enrolled in dental school to learn the art of metal casting.
He returned to Graves’ garage to show him his work. That’s when he learned that his friend has lost one of his kidneys and would soon need to pass his trade on to someone else.
For the next seven years, Billings worked as an apprentice under Graves, polishing and grinding molds that were used in Tiffany-style art deco lamps and sundry other cast sculptures for a variety of organizations.
“It’s really an ancient craft, pouring and hand-carving molds. The Grammy award was really a small part of the original operation,” Billings recalled.
In 1984, after his mentor’s passing, Billings purchased the business from Graves’ widow.
As the Grammys grew (the organization gave away just 60 in the beginning, and now hands out more than 700 every year) so did the amount of time Billings had to dedicate to creating the unique statues.
In 1985, the recording academy asked Billings to redesign the Grammy award, which was known for breaking easily.
“I wasn’t sure what they wanted, so I went back to art deco to influence the design,” Billings said.
He also changed the metal alloy from lead to zinc, using a secret formula he named Grammium, which made the award much harder and more resilient. “The breakage went down to virtually nothing,” Billings said.
When Billings presented his prototype — a stronger, larger and shinier Grammy — to the academy executives, they nearly leaped out of their chairs with excitement, Billings said.
During previous engravings, Billings has had to check and recheck the spelling of famous names such as Joan Baez, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis.
As part of the job, the Academy gives Billings and his wife of 19 years, Robin Meiklejohn, rafter seats to the ceremony each year and an invitation to the nominee party the night before the event.
He’s met hundreds of stars but the one that stands out the most in his mind is Solomon Burke, an R&B singer known as the “King of Rock and Soul.”
Billings always wears western boots and a large 10-gallon Stetson to the event, which attracted Burke’s attention.
“He was in a wheelchair, he was a large man, but he was dressed to the nines in a silk suit and he was strikingly handsome,” Billings remembered.
“I guess he thought it was interesting that I made the Grammys,” he added.
The next night, Burke’s name was called to the stage to receive his first Grammy award for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” after more than four decades of being a professional musician.
Burke stood up from his wheelchair, waving off event staff, and slowly walked up the stairs to the stage. “He finally got up to the microphone and said, ‘It took me 40 years to get up those steps’ ” Burke said. “I just broke out in tears,” Billings said.
The next week, Burke called Billings at his home in Ridgway to thank him for making his award.
“He’s the only person who has ever called to thank me,” Billings said.
The two remained friends until Burke’s death last year. His final album, “Hold On Tight,” has been nominated for another Grammy award this year, Billings said.
Billings moved to Ridgway in 1993 after falling in love with the San Juan mountains during a visit with the late actor Dennis Weaver.
“I love it — every day it almost moves me to tears,” he said of the tight-knit community.
Most people in Ridgway think that making Grammy awards is a very cool job but Billings said it is a painstaking process.
“It takes about 15 hours to make each one. It can be very overwhelming,” he said.
His studio, Billings Artworks, is located in downtown Ridgway, where he is helped by three employees.
The awards are shipped to Acme Plating in Montrose, where they get a gold plating. “I got so blessed when they moved here,” Billings said of the local company who has completed the plating on the awards since 1995. Prior to that the awards were shipped to California, a process that significantly slowed down production time.
“I work on a Grammy almost every day,” Billings said.
In addition to the Grammys, he makes a number of other popular but lesser-known awards, including the Annie Award, given to those in animation, and the Latin Grammy awards.
He also makes the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the most exemplary college basketball player.
As an artist, he enjoys casting a variety of designs. One of his favorites is the Convoy Duck hood ornament, which is a replica of the angry rubber duck hood ornament used in the 1978 classic movie “Convoy.”
“Those are fun,” he said.
He’s also a musician who has produced two blues and folk albums.
“But really, I got lucky,” he said. “To be able to make a living using your artistic talent is a blessing.”
Someday he may pass down his trade to someone else, but for now he’s happy to retain his title as “Grammy Man.”