Mr. Grammy: Ridgway’s master craftsman

It’s been a long journey from Van Nuys, in southern California, to Ridgway for John Billings, 71.

A quiet, unassuming man, he may not personify fame, but he is certainly an unrivaled winner in the awards world. Billings is the creator of music’s most coveted trophy: the Grammy.

A SoCal boy born and bred, Billings had no intention of moving to western Colorado. He was firmly ensconced in Van Nuys as the successor to Bob Graves, the original trophymaker.

He grew up in Graves’ neighborhood and was his son’s best friend. The two boys enjoyed hanging out in the workshop. Fascinated by the process of making metal art, Billings went to school to learn more about the craft.

In 2000, Dennis Weaver built his “Earthship,” Ridgway’s bermed-earth, tire-walled, ecologically friendly house. He commissioned Billings to make custom, Southwest-themed lighting fixtures. Once Billings drove into the shadow of the San Juans, he knew he was home. In 2002, he and his wife packed up and moved to the mountains.

Getting ready for the Grammys

Months before the Grammy awards show, Billings receives a list of nominees in 83 categories. But he has to make many more trophies than that.

“Each person associated with a song, if they contributed at least 51 percent to the creation of the piece, gets an award,” Billings explained.

“These include producers, sound mixers and others.”

Some artists, such as Taylor Swift, have as many as 20 people associated with the album. How does Billings determine his output?

“I used to be into racing,” he said. “I’m pretty good at handicapping.”

This year he estimates he will make 350 statues.

If you think he might let slip the names of the winners, you’re out of luck. No one knows until the night of the show, held on January 28 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This year marks the Grammy’s 60th anniversary.

“Stunt Grammys are handed out at the ceremony,” Billings said. “Then about a month later, I get a list of winners and engrave the plates that go on the real trophies, which are still at my shop. I take the plates and the awards to Los Angeles. The Recording Academy then affixes the plates and sends the finished products to the winners.”

He returns with the stunt Grammys and cleans them by taking them apart and washing them with dish detergent to remove fingerprints and grime. Then they go back to Los Angeles, ready for the next ceremony.

Inside the Grammy Award

On his trip west, Billings also picks up 3,000 pounds of what he dubs “grammium,” a dull silverish metal that he uses to cast the gramophone. Then the figure is gold plated.

Creating a piece is complicated. First Billings makes a model of wax, plastic, wood or metal. He makes a mold by encasing the model in plaster to make an impression, then carves a detailed pattern into it. Using the plaster patterns, he creates a bronze mold with a sand casting method. The figure is then cast in brass or other metal.

The original Grammy was much smaller, able to sit comfortably in an outstretched palm. The curved bracket that held the stylus broke easily, so Billings redesigned it to make it sturdier. Then the company asked artists to create a larger one, so Billings made it 30 percent bigger.

“When I walked into the office, the executive said, ‘That’s it!’” he recalled.

The Grammy statues are only a small part of what Billings does. He makes awards for the Latin Grammys, the National Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Year trophy and the Annie Awards presented by the International Animated Film Society.

He also makes other specialized figures, including the metal skull that adorns the gas tank of Harley-Davidson
motorcycles. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Billings’ creations—chrome ducks smoking cigars—adorn the hoods of semi trucks across the world. (He had to modify the design for a client in the Middle East, however, who wanted a duck without the cigar.)

Billings also made the mold for the dining room lighting fixtures used in the sinking scene in the movie “Titanic.”

An art deco fan, he often designs stylized female figures and other motifs in the 1920s style to sit on mantels, coffee tables and more. Billings paints, too, focusing on large portrayals of deceased guitarists. John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Gregg Allman and others—instantly recognizable to any rock fan—fill one wall of his basement workshop.

He also restores trophies—when an award winner’s grandsons decided to use the Grammy as a makeshift football, it came back to Billings to have the dented horn straightened out.

One of his most interesting repairs involved a four-foot tall trophy Amelia Earhart won in a 1939 race. Three Winged Victory figures hold a bowl with a plane on top. Earhart’s photographer came into possession of the trophy, and it languished in a box for decades.

“It took me a month to solder the pieces together,” Billings said.

The trophy now sits in the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Two years ago, Billings was commissioned to create an executive desk lamp in the shape of Dragon V2, the capsule Elon Musk’s SpaceX company will use to deliver goods to the International Space Station. In 2018, the capsule will carry seven of the lamps into orbit.

Jan Weeks

Jan Weeks

Jan Weeks has been writing and dreaming since childhood. She’s worked as a public school teacher, heavy equipment operator, surgical ward secretary, waitress, administrative assistant and fly fishing guide. Her articles, short stories and essays have appeared in “Outdoor Life,” “Guideposts,” “Natural Health” and other markets. Her award-winning novels and short stories include “Season of Evil, Season of Dreams;” “The Centerville Code” and “Anna, Old.”
When she isn’t writing, she teaches writing workshops and edits both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She facilitates the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop and belongs to the Authors’ Guild. Visit her website for more information and links to her books and classes.
Jan Weeks

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