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The Grammy man

By Megan Terlecky, News Channel 3 Anchor & Reporter, megan.terlecky@kesq.com
Published On: Feb 08 2013 12:55:34 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 08 2013 08:15:00 AM CST

The Grammy Man.

RIDGWAY, Calif. -

On Sunday, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will honor the best in the music industry with a Grammy. But, before the best artists in the country get their hands on the golden gramophone, it passes through the skillful hands of one Colorado man.

It's considered the highest honor in the recording industry and it's hand crafted in a small Colorado mountain town.

John Billings, Owner of Billings Artworks, says, "I've always been into music since I was a little kid, so doing something like this and honoring people in the industry doesn't get any better."

Nestled right in the beautiful town of Ridgway, Colorado, is a piece of music history, Billings Artworks.

Billings says, "I actually came out here in 1990 on a job. I saw Ridgway and I just fell in love and just thought wow. Once I saw Ridgway, there was no question that's where I wanted to be."

Now Ridgway is where John Billings and three others spend the year making Grammys.

"We are probably making around 600 Grammys a year and each one has about fifteen hours of hand work," said Billings.

Affectionately known as the Grammy Man, John has been creating the awards by hand for nearly forty years.

Billings says, "I started as an apprentice to the original Grammy maker in 1976."

"When I was a little kid, I used to live two doors down and I would go in his garage, he worked out of his garage as a mold maker," He said. "At one point I went by his house to show him some of my casting, because I was in dental school. I was making teeth. He told me that he was going on dialysis."

Billings says, "He asked if I would be interested in becoming his apprentice. I worked with him for seven years before he passed away."

Each Grammy starts off as liquid metal heated to 650 degrees.

Billings says, "There are four major components to the Grammy. There is the base, the record cabinet, the tone arm and the bell. Three of those pieces are cast, one at a time. We cast them in an alloy that we call 'Grammium.'"

Patrick Moore, with Billings Artworks, says, "In a day's time, I will cast probably a good hundred of these and maybe keep thirty."

After hours of filing, sanding and painting, the pieces are finally plated in 24-carat gold.

Billings says, "There is just a lot of attention to detail in trying to get them right. We've never made a perfect one. Each one has a little character of its own, which is the great thing about making handmade pieces."

Once finished, they are carefully boxed up until awards night, but you won't see these Grammys on stage.

"The ones that are handed out on television we call our Stunt Grammys. They are real Grammys, they just don't have a name on them because we have no idea who is going to win," said Billings.

"They do get dropped and kissed and hugged," He said. "Once a person is handed a Grammy, they go backstage and they have their picture taken and interviewed. Then those Grammys will go back out on stage again that evening."

In fact it was a Stunt Grammy that Taylor Swift so famously dropped in 2010. And that broken Grammy now sits in John's shop.

Billings says that's not the only one.

"We have a couple here. This was John Legend's. His nephews were playing with it and dropped it, so we've replaced it. We have a couple others that went through Hurricane Katrina," said Billings.

John doesn't just make the awards, he gets to be a part of it. He walks the red carpet, attends the festivities and watches the award show.

"There have been a lot of moments, a lot of tears of joy. I remember Bob Dylan being handed his lifetime achievement award by Jack Nicholas. It was overwhelming," He said.

But his most enjoyable memory is his friendship with the late Solomon Burke.

"I met him at a nominee's party, and we became instant friends. The next night at the Grammys, he won. I was just sitting there in tears because I was just so proud," Billings recalls. "He called me a couple of weeks later to thank me and he would call me every year and sing happy birthday to me.  It was special. He was a special man."

John is now 65 and has no plans of retiring.

"It does mean a lot to me. I have always loved working with my hands and to be able to make a living doing that is like I've never had a job. This is who I am and what I do," he said. "The Grammy man."

It will take about a month after the awards show for John's wife, Robin, to get all of the names engraved. Then John will drive all 600 of them out to California.

John also makes the Annie and the John Wooden Awards.

If you happen to find yourself in Ridgway, stop on by Billings Artworks. Billings says he will be happy to show you around.