The Apollo Theater
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From Small Stages To The GRAMMY Stage: How Four Venue Professionals Became Presenters At The 2021 GRAMMY Awards Show
The Recording Academy reimagined everything about the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show on a more intimate scale, and the choice of presenters was no different. When it came time to announce the Best Country Album winner, the person who appeared on screen wasn't a slick Nashville superstar, but a soft-spoken, older man who's unrecognizable to a global audience but beloved in the Music City. His name was J.T. Gray, and he grinned ear-to-ear on national TV.
In a segment recorded a month prior, Gray showed the camera crew around the Station Inn, the 145-person-capacity bluegrass venue he'd owned since 1981. Despite the room receiving almost no income for a year due to the live music industry shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray was rosy about the future. "Getting to reopen the Station Inn, that's going to be a celebration like never before," he promised. "It's going to be a big party." He then announced the winner, Miranda Lambert, to the world. Gray was naturally quiet and reserved, a closed book. Not after that shoot, though.
"He was just beside himself the whole time," Jeff Brown, the Station Inn's marketing director, tells GRAMMY.com. "He just never believed it was happening. He just didn't believe that his little venue was being recognized on that kind of scale, that those many people in a place with the GRAMMYs and the Recording Academy's recognition actually paid attention. He just couldn't believe it." On Sunday, March 14, Gray astonishedly watched himself on CBS. The following Saturday, he passed away after a struggle with compounding health problems.
Gray might not get to attend the "big party" when things open up. But 9 million people heard his message.
The Troubadour offers our deepest condolences to JT Grey’s family, friends, and those at @stationinn1974. JT created a special home for bluegrass, country music, and more in Nashville, TN. He leaves behind a beautiful legacy and will be missed by many.https://t.co/rGwZGuDoXK
— Troubadour (@theTroubadour) March 24, 2021
For a year, venues worldwide have been hanging on by a thread: struggling to pay their rent, waiting in vain for federal aid, and given no clear finish line as to when they can reopen. That's why, with the Recording Academy's blessing, Executive Producer Ben Winston asked Gray, as well as representatives from the Troubadour and Hotel Café in Los Angeles and the Apollo Theater in New York City, to present at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards and talk about their economic struggles during the pandemic. Together, they sounded a shared refrain to the world: We matter to our communities, and we need help.
The venues that spoke their piece during the 63rd GRAMMY Awards were members of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). An assemblage of independent venue owners and promoters from around the country, NIVA formed directly in response to the 2020 lockdown. "We figured we'd better find a way to come together and lobby for federal assistance," Audrey Schaefer, a board member and the Communications Director for NIVA, tells GRAMMY.com. "Because otherwise, we're all going under."
The Steel Wheels at Station Inn in 2015. Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music via Getty Images
Last year, NIVA, along with the Recording Academy and other music organizations, lobbied Congress via the Save Our Stages Act and succeeded. On Dec. 27, the decree became the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and passed along with the COVID relief package. "In that grant fund is $16 billion," Schaefer says. "For an organization that didn't exist before … nobody gave us any hopes of being able to secure that kind of funding. But we did. We got the law passed."
However, venues have not yet seen that money. "We understand that the applications will start at the beginning of April," she adds with relief in her voice.
In the meantime, Scheafer mulled over how best to convey to the world the existential crises venues face. "I was thinking that the GRAMMYs couldn't possibly be at the Beverly Hilton like it normally is—in a big ballroom—because we can't be together," she says. "I thought, 'What if the GRAMMYs were to have the award show, and instead of having all the performances under one roof, they were to have them in independent venues?'"
To try and give this idea legs, Schaefer reached out to Daryl Friedman, Chief Advocacy Officer of the Recording Academy's Advocacy division. "He said, 'Listen, Audrey, I think that's a great idea, but they have a million great ideas. So, let me take it to them and we'll see what happens,'" she recalls. Schaefer persistently followed up. "I kept asking Daryl, 'What do you think? What are you hearing?'"
But unbeknown to her, the Recording Academy and the production team were already independently planning to highlight independent venues and their employees as an advocacy initiative and add a personal moment to the broadcast. "And then I found out that, oh my gosh, they do want to do it," she adds with awe.
Billie Eilish at the Troubadour in 2019. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Granted, the Recording Academy didn't agree to host performances at independent venues. But Schaefer calls the idea they decided to go with "so much better." Instead, venue professionals would take viewers on a tour of their workplaces, illustrating their value to their communities and why they desperately need help. Participants included the Station Inn's Gray; Rachelle Erratchu, the night manager at the Troubadour; Billy Mitchell, the tour guide and overall house cat at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; and Candice Fox, a bartender at the Hotel Café in Hollywood.
For Erratchu, the problem extends further than keeping the lights on at the Troubadour; the entire live music ecosystem is in trouble. "We need everybody else to survive so that we can survive," she tells GRAMMY.com. "If we don't exist and all the other venues across the country don't exist, the tour circuit as we know it and have relied on it for decades won't exist anymore."
For Billy Mitchell, the Historical Tour Manager and overall global representative of the Apollo Theater who has earned the title of "Mr. Apollo," his job isn't a means to an end; he lives and breathes it. Mitchell's time at the Apollo began in 1965 when he ran errands for James Brown and his band. During the telecast, Mitchell relates a funny story of how the Godfather of Soul sent him all the way home to the Bronx to get his report card, threatening to put his job on ice if he didn't get better grades.
COVID forced the Apollo to temporarily furlough some its staff. To be forced to stop, it was heartbreaking, to be honest with you," Mitchell tells GRAMMY.com. "I give tours to people from all over the world, and they're unable to visit because of COVID restrictions and things like that." While the not-for-profit has offered digital programming in the meantime, most of it has been free as not to burden fans. Thankfully, at press time, all staff members have returned full-time.
Billy Mitchell at the Apollo Theater in 2009. Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage via Getty Images
The Apollo has been lucky, in a sense; corporate and private donations have kept it afloat. Still, they're not out of the woods yet. "Donations are needed so that when we do reopen, we can pump out those great shows and bring back our staff," Mitchell says. "We want to bring back our staff as soon as possible."
In the clip played during the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show, Mitchell addressed viewers from the empty audience. "We miss our audience and we can't wait until our doors open up again," he says. "We just can't wait."
Candice Fox, a bartender at Hollywood's Hotel Café, believes there will be an outpouring of activity at her workplace once it's safe again. "I like to believe people are going to want to make up for lost time," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I know that people are itching to perform. People are so excited to experience that exchange of energy again. So, I think it's going to explode."
In line with Erratchu's thoughts on the overall music ecosystem, Fox notes that Katy Perry cut her teeth at the 65-capacity room on Cahuenga Boulevard. "She wasn't the big pop star she is now; she was just a girl with a guitar," she says. "So many artists' careers and the GRAMMYs couldn't exist without small, independent venues like the Hotel Café because you've got to start somewhere." In her clip, Fox ruminates on the regulars she's missed for a year, pouring a Boddingtons and mixing an Old Fashioned to an array of empty stools.
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds at Hotel Café in 2015. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
At the end of every venue vignette, each venue representative announced the winner of their assigned categories: Best Country Album for Gray (Miranda Lambert's Wildcard), Best Pop Solo Performance for Erratchu (Harry Styles' "Watermelon Sugar"), Best Rap Song for Billy Mitchell (Beyoncé's and Megan Thee Stallion's "Savage Remix") and Album Of The Year for Fox (Taylor Swift's folklore). All four were thrilled to appear and encourage viewers to support their workplaces—whether by donating directly, paying for a livestream or purchasing a T-shirt.
That way, the lights at the Station Inn, the Troubadour, the Apollo and Hotel Café can flare up again, ensuring these cultural hubs don't become figments of the past. And if you want to know how memorable the inevitable "COVID is over" parties will be, just look at Gray's blazing smile during the GRAMMYs.
"I can probably count a very [small] number of times that I've seen him truly smile," the Station Inn's Brown reflects. "But truly smiling—that's what he was doing here."
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