John Billings remembers the moment he realized just how significant his life’s work is.
Billings, who has been handcrafting the Grammy awards for the last four decades, watched as Bob Dylan strode on stage to receive the 1991 Lifetime Achievement award from Jack Nicholson.
Billings started to cry.
“I finally realized, ‘Wow, I’m really part of something,’ ” said Billings, 74. “I’ve always loved the fact that when I go to the Grammys and see the winners’ faces, it changes them. Once you’ve won a Grammy, it changes your life. You’re always introduced as ‘Grammy-winning so-and-so.’ I like that part of being some sort of conduit to lifting people’s lives. It changes their life and it satisfies mine. I get a lot of comfort and satisfaction by helping lift people up — I love doing that.”
In early February, Billings will travel from his home in Ridgway to Los Angeles, swapping out his work T-shirt for a custom-made, embroidered Manuel jacket for the black-tie awards ceremony. Each year, Billings and his team of four craftsmen create roughly 600 awards from scratch for the Grammys and Latin Grammys, work that culminates with a trip to the annual music awards ceremony in February.
Working seven days a week in his 2,000-square-foot workshop, Billings and his team also create the Annie Awards, which recognize talented animators; the John R. Wooden awards, given to the top men’s NCAA college basketball players; and duck-shaped metal hood ornaments that first appeared in the 1978 movie “Convoy” and are now popular among truck drivers.
Making the Grammys
From start to finish, each Grammy takes about 15 hours to make. Billings and his crew work in batches of 30 awards, with each member of the team specializing in a few steps of the process. Once the base of the award is cast, for instance, a craftsman uses a belt sander to file down all the sharp edges. Jim Spear then applies two layers of primer, sanding the base between each layer, before applying a final coat of black lacquer paint.
Another craftsman spends much of his time grinding and polishing the cabinet, tone arm and bell for each award.
Billings does the final assembly of all the pieces, a process that includes lasering unique serial numbers on the 5-pound awards. A few weeks before the ceremony, Billings' crew load up all the awards and drives them to the Recording Academy’s headquarters in Santa Monica. Then, after the awards ceremon he gets a list of all the winners, he’ll engrave a nameplate for each winner and ship them out to be attached to the statues.
Billings, his employees and their family members then make a separate trip to attend the ceremony and red-carpet events leading up to it. (Ironically, Billings says the best seat he ever had for the Grammys was in a hotel room, watching on TV, when he caught pneumonia before the show.)
All told, Billings uses about 6,000 pounds a year of a special metal alloy he calls “grammium,” which is smelted in California.
At one time, Billings made all of the Grammys by himself. But in 1991, he redesigned the statue, which made it even more complicated and time-consuming to make. He began slowly adding to his team, training each member carefully in the art of his intricate craft.
“They have all become craftsmen in their own right,” Billings said. “It doesn’t just come naturally. It’s not like you can take a class or read a book; you just have to learn it.
Patrick Moore, who had a career hanging drywall before meeting Billings, says he’s grateful to learn from such an accomplished craftsman and artist. The process requires a lot of patience, one of the main virtues Moore says he’s learned from watching Billings.
“There’s no Grammy that looks exactly the same,” says Moore, 56. “Each one has its own character. It’s definitely handcrafted.”
That sentiment is shared by the many musicians, producers, sound engineers and other award-winners, who, as artists themselves, appreciate the craft that goes into making each Grammy, said Bill Freimuth, chief awards officer for the Recording Academy.
“Without the award, the Grammy is an idea or concept. It sounds good, but it’s abstract,” Freimuth said. “Once a recipient is holding the physical award for the first time — something I’ve been honored to witness quite a lot — you can see the glow in their eyes. They see that golden gramophone and realize that they are now officially a part of the music history for which it stands. They are awestruck.”
Though the Grammys, Latin Grammys, other awards and ducks take up most of his time, Billings, a master mold-maker and perpetual tinkerer, also enjoys working on one-of-a-kind projects. Case in point: He recently made a mold of the Dragon Crew Capsule for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The company wanted to create 5,000 spacecraft-shaped desk lamps to give away to executives.
He once repaired a trophy presented to Amelia Earhart in the 1930s that had ended up in a box in the back of a closet “in 100 pieces,” Billings said. It took him two months to painstakingly solder all the pieces back together, and now the 4-foot-tall trophy looks as if it had never been broken, he said.
Using an original piece from the Titanic, Billings created a mold used to create light fixtures that appeared in the 1997 film about the tragedy. After vandals trashed a trophy case at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Billings got the call to restore trophies from the 1930s and 1940s.
His reputation as an expert craftsman often precedes him.
“I’m out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t advertise, but when people are searching for where to get this type of work done, I’m one of three mold-makers left in the country,” he said. “I have a craft that is slowly disappearing.”
Billings first encountered the Grammy awards at the age of 12, when his family moved to Van Nuys, Calif. Their next-door neighbor was Bob Graves, who made the first Grammy for the 1959 ceremony. After earning a degree in dental technology, Billings began to apprentice under Graves in 1976. When Graves died in 1983, Billings took over the business and moved to Ridgway not long after.
He continues to be inspired by the San Juan Mountains and Ridgway’s calm, laid-back attitude.
“You never get tired of looking at the mountains,” he said. “It’s just awe-inspiring.” Billings and his wife Robin Meiklejohn live in a small cabin just outside out of town, where they spend their time together working in their gardens with the help of their two cats, Stevie and Ghetti. Robin has also been part of Billings crew, coming in to clean and even doing some of the engraving.
Indeed, Billings fits right into this mountain community with roughly 1,000 residents. Ridgway has become a haven for artists and craftsmen who create everything from beeswax candles to blown-glass decor. Ridgway is also home to Kiitella, the studio of artist and designer Lisa Issenberg, who makes awards for a variety of competitions and ceremonies.
Though he spends much of his time working, Billings is involved in the Ridgway arts community. He supported Ridgway’s quest to become a state-certified creative district, a title bestowed upon the town in 2013. He and late sculptor Michael McCullough founded the Ridgway Annual Amateur Sculpting Contest, which is now in its seventh year. Billings is also supportive of Ridgway as a site for the statewide Space to Create initiative, which aims to build affordable housing and workspace for creatives.
“John loves this community, and it loves him back,” said Hilary Lewkowitz, spokeswoman for the Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce. “He is an active and generous community member who has grown his business by hiring local folks and training them in his craft.”
For his part, Billings says he has no plans to retire, though he has been thinking about dedicating more time to his passion projects.
When he’s not working — which isn’t often — Billings likes to spend his time fishing, gardening or hanging out on his pontoon boat on Ridgway Reservoir. Billings created a music room inside his home with thousands of records and CDs, a drum set and 11 guitars (Billings plays bass and drums). He listens mostly to music from the 1960s and ’70s, but he also tries to keep up with new artists, especially when the list of Grammy nominees comes out.
He also loves to paint portraits in oil, though he says he can never find enough time.
“Retirement doesn’t appeal to me,” he says. “I can’t see myself sitting on a beach with a cocktail. I have so many projects that I think about and work on and try to develop, and it’s nothing — it’s just for my satisfaction.”