The 59th Annual Grammys Awards are this weekend. Twenty-five years ago, I worked at the 34th Annual Grammys at Radio City Musical Hall. My friend, Christine, a fellow Montclair State alum, asked me, along with a bunch of other recent Communication Studies graduates, to volunteer as a talent escort and seat filler.
On February 25, 1992, we met at Radio City early, received an orientation, a tour of the hall, and our escort assignments. Some of us would escort performers. Some would escort presenters. Performers got dressing rooms. Presenters did not. I didn’t know if my nerves could manage a performer, which that year included Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, Bonnie Raitt, LL Cool J, Seal, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Johnny Mathis.
As an introverted 23-year-old I had never been around big-time celebrities. Especially this many. In person. And all in the same place. Many of whom I idolized. I hoped star-struckness didn’t affect my ability to do the job. What if I get Johnny Mathis, how will I contain my excitement? Most of the weekends of my youth were filled with his soothing voice. Without fail, mom or dad played one of his records. If get him, I might have to break the rules and ask for an autograph. For my parents. Johnny would understand.
The volunteer coordinator gathered us around to go over our assignments.
“Peter,” she announced, “you have Joe Williams.”
Joe Williams? Who the heck is he? An industry exec? A producer? Metallica’s drummer?
I had never heard of him, and back then, I couldn’t just whip out my smartphone and google his name. So I did what I could. I asked every person within earshot if they had heard of Joe Williams. None of my peers had. Even my friend who invited me to volunteer didn’t know him. But she asked around and reported back. Eventually I learned he portrayed Grandpa Al on The Cosby Show, but that his real claim to fame was as a jazz performer. He was there to present an award with Henry Mancini. Moon River I knew. I knew nothing by Joe Williams. And I had no idea what he looked like. Luckily, the show’s opening video played on the screens over the stage. There he was in the list of stars appearing on the show. I now had a visual reference.
I took my sign with “Joe Williams” on it and headed outside to wait for his arrival. Limos lined up all the way down the block to 5th Avenue and around the corner. One by one, artists arrived, met their escorts, and went inside. Aretha Franklin was an exception. She didn’t stop for her escort. She zoomed by us, floating over the earth, seemingly carried by her entourage. I’m fairly certain her feet never touched the sidewalk. (That’s respect. That’s the Queen of soul. That’s a diva!)
I waited in the cold without a coat. An hour passed. Only a few talent escorts remained. Finally, a car pulled up and Joe Williams got out. Alone. No entourage. No manager. No agent. Just Joe. He saw my sign and immediately came over. He grabbed my hand, squeezed, and said, “Don’t lose me.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“I’m in good hands?” he asked.
“Yes,” I assured him.
Once inside, I showed him to his seat for the performance, only a few rows from the stage. He sat. Of course, he didn’t have to sit. He could have mingled with other artists. Many of them hung out and hobnobbed in the back and in the aisles.
I explained how the day and night would proceed. That I would be with him for the afternoon rehearsal until one of the professional crew members came to take him backstage, where I wasn’t allowed to go. Then, after the rehearsal, they’d bring him back to me, and the process would repeat again, right up to airtime. He nodded. Then patted a seat. So I sat. And he just started to talk. With a prideful smile, he told me all about his children and grandchildren. He was excited that a couple of them were going to be in the audience later.
While listening to Joe, I caught the volunteer coordinator out of the corner of my eye approaching down the aisle. I thought for sure I was in trouble for sitting and talking with my artist. I shot up abruptly.
“Pete,” she said with concern, “Henry Mancini’s escort is nowhere to be found. We need you to take care of him, too.”
“Sure,” I said, relieved. A few minutes later she brought Henry Mancini over. I introduced myself and briefed him on the process. He seemed to know the game plan. He took my place next to Joe Williams. They talked. I stood nearby, keeping an eye on both of them. I didn’t want to lose two artists.
Whoopi Goldberg, the host, practiced introductions on stage. Over my right shoulder, Garth Brooks looked on. From top to bottom, the show was rehearsed. When LL Cool J took the stage for “Mama Said Knock You Out,” he knocked us all out. I remember the hall erupting in applause just for his rehearsal.
A crew member came for Joe and Henry. Even though I didn’t know them personally, a sense of pride, like a parent with a child, came over me as I watched them walk through their roles as co-presenters for one of the jazz awards.
Soon, they were back in their seats, under my watchful eye. Then, out of nowhere, Henry Mancini’s escort showed up. Joe had my undivided attention once again.
As air time neared, a production assistant came to take Joe to the hair and makeup room. He stood, grabbed my hand again, and said to the production assistant, “he’s coming with me.”
Together, Joe Williams and I wound our way through the backstage corridors of Radio City, passing one star after another. It was then I began to realize the status he had in the music industry. On our way to the hair and makeup room, we passed Bonnie Raitt. She stopped and swooned, bowing and whispering, “Oh, Joe Williams,” with a sweet deferential love and respect for the man and his music. They chatted briefly. As we continued on, others had the same reaction and treated Joe as if he were royalty. I didn’t know it at the time, but I held the hand of a jazz legend.
I waited outside while Joe had his hair combed and face powdered. There were no other talent escorts to be seen anywhere. And for good reason, we weren’t allowed back there. But since Joe had insisted I join him, there I was, among the biggest names in music, waiting for their turn to get powdered.
When he came out, he instantly grabbed my hand—this time a silent and reassuring “I’ve got you. We won’t lose each other.”
“Come with me,” he said. He guided us to an area backstage next to a series of ropes, pulleys, and curtains, then stopped. “I met Sir Sidney Poitier right here in this spot.”
“Really? Wow,” I said, slack-jawed.
“This is where he gave me the best advice I ever received.”
I was becoming more and more in awe of this man, Joe Williams, his story, the place, and the moment. Now, 25 years later, I wish I could remember the advice he received from Sidney Poitier. I’m sure it was something meaningful about show business, and I probably took it to heart, but unfortunately, I’m unable to pass it along. (I know, how could you forget something like that?)
A stage manager, seeing the two of us in a place we shouldn’t have been, led us back to the audience area. It was time for Joe to take his place before the show. And for me to say goodbye.
For the actual production, my role transitioned from talent escort to seat filler.
I lined up with all the other escorts turned seat fillers along the side aisles of the hall. During commercial breaks, whenever an audience member left their seat, one of us would sit in their place until they returned. This occurred so that if the camera ever panned the audience during the show, there wouldn’t be any empty seats.
I filled only two seats that night. The first one was a brief stint, the length of one commercial break. When the audience member returned, I got back in line and waited my turn to fill another seat.
In the meantime, I watched the show. But celebrities do not sit still. With every commercial break, I inched closer to another seat assignment. Soon enough, another seat filler and I were pointed to two adjacent seats about twenty rows from the stage, smack-dab in the center of the row. To our surprise, there were coats on each seat.
In order to sit, I draped a man’s coat over my seat back. My cohort did the same with a woman’s coat on her seat. Why didn’t these guests use coat check? And just whose seats were we filling? The coats were luxurious. Must be VIPs. I was tempted to reach into a pocket for some sort of identification. I didn’t.
I looked around in amazement. We were surrounded by so much talent, industry bigwigs, and other seat fillers.
One commercial break passed. I looked behind to the aisles for the seats rightful occupant. No one came. I got comfortable. A second commercial break passed. Still no one came to claim our seats. I teared up watching Bonnie Raitt, on a stool in front of a grand piano, perform one of my favorite songs, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
A third commercial break came and went. How could they be gone for so long? Why would anyone want to miss this much of the show? Are they making deals in the lobby or bar downstairs? Will they come back before the show ends? I nestled in.
During the fourth commercial break, I heard a loud and abrupt “Hey, Hey, Yo” from the aisle to my left. I looked across to see the angry face of Donald Trump, with Marla Maples partially hidden behind him.
“Get up!” he pointed, scowled, and flailed his arms while clumsily squeezing past guests in between. He looked maniacal and unstable. Clearly, he didn’t understand his seat would be filled if he left. I realized fast he assumed we had stolen his and Marla’s seats.
The other seat filler and I shot up and bolted for the aisle to our right as he approached. Trump shouted for us to stop, but we kept going. It wasn’t up to us to explain how the seat-filling process worked.
After, though, I didn’t get back in line to fill any other seats. My brief encounter with Mr. Trump had unnerved me. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if he was nearby, or if he was sending over a goon to shake me down. Of course, this was paranoia. Even though I was just doing my job and had done nothing wrong, he had made me fearful. This is the way a bully operates.
I stuck around at the end of the line until the end of the show. As the audience filtered out, I spotted Joe Williams standing by his seat. He looked lost. I walked over and asked him if he needed assistance. He said he was looking for his family. Not knowing what they looked like or where they were seated, I searched with him. Finally, he found them in the back.
Before he went to meet them, he shook my hand and thanked me. Then he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
“Here,” he said and handed me an envelope. “I’m not going to use this. You can have it.” Inside was a ticket to an after party at the Hilton a few blocks up. No way! I thanked him. And we went our separate ways forever.
I had spent the afternoon and early evening of February 25, 1992, with an elegant, inspirational, graceful, and talented black man, only to have the night almost completely ruined by a gross, classless, entitled, white asshole.
The situation to today feels similar. With Trump replacing Obama, this unfortunate series of events has occurred again, except not just to me, but to the world. And what I didn’t know then, but do now is this: we must not be intimidated. We must resist the bully. We can’t be fearful. No matter how much he lies about his “greatness,” he can’t make us love him.
Sometimes when I think about the butterfly effect, I wonder if I could have somehow prevented Trump from becoming president. What if I had waited in his seat a few seconds longer? What if we had a physical altercation and it changed both of our life’s trajectories? Then I think, damn, what if another Grammy winner in 1997 (and popular vote winner in 2016) had just visited Wisconsin and rural Pennsylvania?
What if we could go back a year, grab her hand, and tell her “please don’t lose us?”
Tragically, the distant and near pasts are immutable.
And so we’re stuck with a mentally ill loser—let’s never forget he lost by 2.9 million votes—and a Putin-bitch narcissist in the oval office. He’s nothing but a fraud, a Milli Vanilli con artist, and a crooked, corrupt seat filler-in-chief.
If only the rightful occupant could stroll down the aisle on the left into the west wing and yell “Hey, Yo, Get Up! Mama Said Knock You Out.”
Here’s Joe Williams performing with Count Basie:
This is the only photo I could find where I’m wearing my Grammy Awards t-shirt. My nephew happens to be on my shoulders at the time.
Update: In a previous version of this post, I thought I remembered the advice Joe Williams received as being from Sir Laurence Olivier, but I think it may have been from Sir Sidney Poitier. Easy mistake? They’re both Sirs with two syllable first names and similar sounding last names. Here’s my advice: don’t ever forget a legend’s imparted wisdom.