Rickey Minor is synonymous with music on television. For years he’s been on the cutting edge of music TV, whether it’s American Idol, the Academy Awards or The Tonight Show. Rickey recently earned his 12th Emmy Award nomination for the Inauguration Night special Celebrating America and has already won two Emmys for Outstanding Music Direction.
In our awards season interview Rickey and I discuss the fine art of making music on the small screen, how much it means to him to have a dozen Emmy nominations, and what he’s learned from working on many of the most well-known events in pop culture. Plus, what do music fans not know that they should? Get to know more about Rickey as we wait for the Emmys envelope to open in September.
Brittany Frederick: Celebrating America represents your twelfth Emmy nomination. What does it mean to you to be recognized by the Television Academy a dozen times?
Rickey Minor: For me, always, the work is the reward. This is wonderful to be recognized by your peers, but the fact that you get a call and then you get a call back, that’s pretty good recognition that someone believes in you and believes in your work.
BF: Being music director for an Inauguration Night special, especially this past Inauguration, is a high point for any artist’s career. But you’ve also overseen the Super Bowl, the Grammys and even the Emmys themselves. So where did Celebrating America rank? Was this pretty usual for you?
RM: They’re all equal in the sense that they’re all challenging. That none of them are easy. Even a television special or television series, the work is really intense—very high, a lot of people pulling and tugging and you have deliverables, you’re on a deadline. They’re all exciting and challenging and so I don’t know if I have one [favorite]. I guess if I had to pick one, I have a show that I’m doing next week. It’s “We Love New York,” the homecoming concert in Central Park—60,000 people, five hours long, with everyone from the New York Phil to Springsteen to Jennifer Hudson, Santana, LL Cool J.
BF: You’re directing these productions that by their nature have to be huge, jaw-dropping events, and working with several different artists and teams that also have their needs and ideas. Logistically how does something like Celebrating America come together?
RM: I look at it as your partner for this dance is your partner, so find a way to find some ebb and flow. The first thing that happens in these kinds of things is you have to have someone you trust on all ends. If the production trusts me, then I have to have a team that I trust, and it goes on down the food chain of what’s needed, from the transportation company to get you there on time. I get the call and then I just have to figure out what, when, how and how much, because there’s a cost with these things; you just can’t have them write a blank check. What am I called to do, what’s needed, and then how should we do it to make it cost-effective?
And then I think the trust, with my relationships throughout the industry over the years with the artists, that’s probably the biggest thing that they’re looking for. You already have a relationship with this person. What do you think they should do? Helping them find what’s right for them. Or we want them to do this and seeing if it’s right for them. I never try to push an artist into something that doesn’t suit them and where they don’t shine. It’s my job to protect them as well as the show.
BF: Inaugurations are always a big deal, but this one was particularly important for a number of reasons, from having the first female Vice President to just everything America has been through of recent. How do you, as music director, channel that kind of emotional significance into the product we see on screen?
RM: The producers have to have a vision first. Then there’s a lot of discussion of which artists, what songs, and they put together the flow of the show, how it runs. [My job is] really helping the artists find the right material, or they may have something suggested and I just kind of look over it and liaison with their team. It’s me working with each artist and their team, and sometimes there’s a lot to do from building a performance from scratch. Some of it is just to take a look, make a recommendation, or just say “This is amazing, and thank you.”
BF: Between the occasion and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic Celebrating America was definitely not a typical TV special. Were there performances or behind-the-scenes moments that stood out to you?
RM: Every single one felt like an epic performance, because they all knew how important this was. Sometimes you see a performance on an award show and you go, “Oh, it looks like they phoned that one in.” They’ve done that a hundred times just like that, and so they just walked in, did their hit song and left. Because of COVID, everyone had to be creative in how they shot it, how it was delivered and what their goal was. Most of the things were shot on location or a green screen. There were a few that were live. But to do a show like this, with this amount of artists, during COVID was a very difficult task, and I think that the producers pulled that off.
BF: Are you used to that level of pressure and excitement by now? Do you become accustomed to it or do you still have moments where you’re like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this”?
RM: I am every single time having those “pinch me” moments. (laughs) Am I really sitting here at Capitol records? Am I really at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Phil? Am I really doing the Kennedy Center? Am I really doing the Grammys again? For me all of it’s like the first time, because I’m a fan. I do this work, but I’m a fan of this art of television, music, film. I wake up and go, “I must be dreaming,” because to be in the room with people like Aretha Franklin, Sting, Paul McCartney, Santana—you name it, these artists are icons.
The artist H.E.R. I met when she was nine so to essentially to be a part of her life, along with so many others. Whitney [Houston] and Beyonce, Christina [Aguilera], Adele—meeting these people in the beginning of their career. They were all what I consider very young kids compared to me being in the business so long, but to watch them grow and their trust in the early stages, and continue to have that trust and relationship is really special.
BF: Does your approach as music director change between doing something as massive as Celebrating America and something more intimate as, say, American Idol? Or do you have a usual process that you follow regardless of the scope of a project?
RM: The size of the project is never the issue for me. I’m not afraid to ask for help, so I will get in all the help I need, depending on what the project calls for. But what is always there for me is the opportunity to add value, to help whoever I’m working with, to try to find ways to make it better, exciting, and challenging for them. We all need a challenge and those artists [on Idol] are no different. They want to be challenged. They want “Give me something that makes me work and gives me something to reach for.” So there is always wanting to be present and and be where I’m needed.
BF: Is there anything about music directing or the music industry that you wish fans were more aware of than they are now? What’s one big takeaway you’ve had from your career?
RM: The one thing I don’t think that people realize about performers and artists and singers, they’re people. They’re just people, so they have feelings. You think they have a thick skin when someone says they like or they don’t like what you just did or what you wore or anything like that. But I find that the artists who deliver these songs really care. They care about their fans, they care about what you think. It’s easy to be on the other side and be judgmental of what they’re doing or how they’re doing it or what they wore, but I would say to the fans, just be kind. Treat people how you want to be treated, like, is that what you would want?
I’ve had a few artists who have had difficulty. When they’re going through a hard time—a breakup, a loss of a family member or something—they pull out of the public eye and the fans say, “Look, I bought your record, so I own you.” Fans have a sense that the artists are there to serve them, but that’s not really the truth. The artist is here to put the art out and if you like it, great. I remember there was a quote from Duke Ellington. He just had a new record out…and he says, “If you like it, then buy it and give to someone you like. And if you don’t like it, buy it and give it to someone you don’t like.”
I tink that’s one thing about artists that no one knows. Very few people know what they’re feeling inside because they’re not supposed to put that out into the world. People say “You’re here to sing and entertain. I bought your record. I don’t want to know about how you’re doing today.” Sometimes it can be a lonely place, being an artist. We all need love.
The Emmy Awards will be presented Sunday, Sept. 19 on CBS.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.