The $1 million saga of Michael Grimm

What happens when you find success on national TV, win $1 million and hate the fame that comes with it?

Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Michael Grimm is going back to Louisiana, in a lyrical sense, and the singer is baying out the words: “Well it’s three o’clock in the mornin’, ya’ll! Oh, and I’m bidin’ my time! Give me two more, Mr. Waiter! You know I got a whole lot on my mind!” The song is an old Delbert McClinton tune. The audience, which paid a five-spot apiece to see this 90-minute R&B revival, is drinking it up. Heads nod in approval, and most in the seated crowd bounce slightly in their seats. A dozen or so get up to groove near the stage, as if dancing to a vintage Wurlitzer whose volume is jacked up as high as she’ll go.

The venue is Ovation at Green Valley Ranch, which takes on the vibe of a big ol’ tavern, with Grimm and his crew serving as the house band. He fits the role ideally, wearing a familiar fedora, jeans and charcoal-colored vest over an untucked white dress shirt. Grimm’s hands dance easily across the strings of his Gibson electric, an instrument he learned to play at age 12. He closes his eyes when he sings, and ducks his head so the brim of his hat halfway shades his face. There is a warmth and a vague sense of familiarity about Grimm as he belts out, “I’m goin’ back to Louisiana! To that girl I left behind!”

He’s good, damn good. And you almost want to say, “This guy should be playing somewhere bigger than this.” But Michael Grimm has been somewhere bigger than this. Way bigger. He’s done the whole gig, and he’ll tell you that the size of the venue, the measure of fame and even the $1 million prize don’t mean squat if you were happier playing in the tavern.

So tonight Grimm is goin’ back, maybe not actually to Louisiana, but to the scene he left behind.

Set it to music.

This is how it turns out: A man who wowed millions while winning America’s Got Talent in 2010 is back playing for a couple hundred fans in the same venues he frequented before even auditioning for the far-reaching TV show. He allows that he’s not built for the type of intense fame—much of it totally unrelated to his music—that winning AGT presented. In a way, this outcome was always Grimm’s destiny.

“I was just tired, worn out,” Grimm says of winning AGT. “I was doing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Today show, and I didn’t feel good rubbing elbows with a bunch of people I don’t know. The whole time, I had a horrible time. The only time I had a good time was when I was singing.”

Grimm Faces

Grimm is notoriously uncomfortable around large groups of people. He says he has a form of social anxiety and talks of many sleepless nights in the months after winning AGT, as he dreaded the next day’s promotional appearance. “I am shy, I guess. I’m intimidated in a lot of these situations. I don’t like to talk about myself, brag about myself. I love being a musician and doing what I do.”

Most astonishingly, Grimm says he would have been fine not winning the AGT championship. “I’m so grateful to have done the show,” he says, pausing for a sigh, “but I just wanted to be seen a couple of times. I did not want to win the show. But each round, I kept winning, and I was thinking, ‘This might wind up with me winning after all.’ But I didn’t really want to. I was saying, ‘No! Please!’”

Fellow Vegas entertainers, even the multitudes who share a genuine affection for Grimm, shake their heads. “A lot of people were expecting something bigger, and maybe it could have gone that route if certain choices had been made, and if I had the want, the ambition, for all that,” Grimm says in a voice that has been made coarse through years of singing, smoking and singing in smoky places. “But I don’t seek that sort of stardom, you know? I’d like to fill an arena, but it’s not the ultimate goal for me.”

Asked for the biggest challenge in becoming a nationally famous entertainer, Grimm grins. “Standing upright when you’re tired.”

Michael Grimm’s rise to prominence is a familiar tale to anyone who watches the NBC talent contest he won in September 2010. It’s a nifty made-for-TV yarn of a young artist who rose to national prominence from the Gulf Coast hamlet of Waveland, Mississippi, having attended the same high school as NFL legend Brett Favre.

Grimm is 32 years old, but it feels as if he’s a generation older, wizened by a lengthy path in the entertainment industry. As a teenager, he landed a job as a guitarist and backup singer in a Legends in Concert production in Biloxi. The show closed, but Grimm, then 21, made a cross-country trek to Vegas to play in the impressionist-driven show at Imperial Palace.

Entertainment directors took note of the musical dexterity required to play in the show’s backing band (which needs to perform the hits of Madonna, Tina Turner and Elvis in a single show) and began hiring him to play such hotel-casino lounges as La Piazza at Caesars and Big Apple Lounge at New York-New York. Grimm has never taken the time to list all of the Vegas venues in which he has performed. “It would be easier to list the ones I haven’t played,” he says. “I’ve played ’em all.”

During this period he’d also been hired to play behind Bill Medley, co-founder with the late Bobby Hatfield of the legendary duo The Righteous Brothers. In the summer of 2010 Medley encouraged Grimm to hustle out to LA to audition for America’s Got Talent. Grimm had little to lose, and the likelihood that he would actually win his way onto the show seemed scarce. Thousands take a shot each season. Sometimes a performer with genuine stage aptitude wins—Terry Fator, the singing comic ventriloquist, used his AGT title to secure a headlining residency at the Mirage—but often, great performers are rejected because that’s all they bring to the audition: great entertainment skills.

You need more than chops to make it on the show, and Grimm had the sort of life story that, coupled with his telegenic good looks and advanced skills as a singer/songwriter, resonated with producers. He talked of performing at Ovation and Hank’s Fine Steaks & Martinis at Green Valley Ranch. The crowd cheered when he explained that he wanted to use the winnings from the show to buy a new house for his grandparents, who’d moved into a trailer in Picayune, Mississippi, after their home was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. As he finished off “You Don’t Know Me” in his first appearance on the show, the audience stood and cried out in approval.

It quickly became clear that the viewing public loved Grimm as much as the judges and studio audience. Such a connection is vital to success on the show, as its champion is determined through a combination of judges’ scores and viewers’ votes. Grimm advanced through the auditions to Vegas Week, through the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the top 10 finals, leading to the finale on September 14, 2010, when he was paired with child singing sensation Jackie Evancho. Grimm powered through “When a Man Loves a Woman,” dedicating the song to his longtime girlfriend, Lucie Zolcerova.

This is the face of utter surprise: Michael Grimm on America's Got Talent in 2010.

In one of the show’s more memorable moments, the man and child stood onstage on either side of host Nick Cannon. Hands stuffed in his pockets, Grimm seemed braced for the inevitable—a victory by the tiny opera star who would later draw praise from renowned producer David Foster as a vocalist who could enjoy a 50-year career.

“America has voted,” Cannon called, and, after a prolonged pause, “and the winner, is Michael Grimm!” The singer’s eyes went wide with shock and he moved quickly to hug the little girl who finished second but could hardly be called a loser.

It seemed like the perfect ending. But it wasn’t the end of anything, or even the start. Grimm didn’t realize it at that moment, but he would return to Vegas and to the same theater he played before national TV stardom.

The day after the victory, Grimm appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and proposed to Lucie, the inspiration for his winning song. She said yes, to the audience’s delight. The two were married in Maui in June 2011, and Lucie, who moved to Las Vegas from the Czech Republic, now runs an agency that hires models for corporate events and teaches dance.

For Grimm, the proposal and wedding were personal highlights in the blush of his AGT victory. He was also eager to fulfill a professional goal to work with Don Was, one of the music industry’s most successful and respected producers. A recording deal with Epic Records was part of the AGT prize package. So was the all-star show of contestants he headlined at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace a month after he won the title and, of course, the $1 million cash award.

Grimm recorded a very good album, predictably so because Was is a genuine master in the studio. The self-titled album was released in May 2011, and Grimm was joined by Travis Tritt on a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” and by Heart’s Ann Wilson on Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Gasoline and Matches.” He debuted the CD with a performance on the Today show, which helped push the release to No. 13 on the Billboard album charts in its first week.

Grimm was subsequently booked to open for Stevie Nicks on her U.S. tour in the summer and fall of 2011, and returned to Las Vegas for an October performance at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel. All seemed to be unfolding according to plan, or at least the plan TV viewers had come to expect of AGT champions. Grimm had recorded a swift-selling album and was touring in good-sized venues with a rock legend.

If there was a point where Grimm began to divert from the expected arc, it was in the fall of 2011. He was booked to play a series of shows at Flamingo Showroom in November and December of last year, filling dates left open by Donny and Marie Osmond, who were off performing holiday concerts out of town. At the time, Grimm was hopeful but apprehensive about filling the 700-seat showroom for a dozen shows. Ticket prices were steep —$50 for a performer who, just a year earlier, had famously played for free in a nook at a hotel-casino steakhouse.

At the time, Grimm said, “We’re going to put together a show that takes people back to what music once was, to the ’60s and ’70s, and I’ll play some originals. I’ll play the music I was raised on. But to be honest, it’s a little scary, headlining a show like that in Las Vegas.”

He also spoke, murkily and without elaboration, of losing investors in the production. His idea for a horn section was dropped (there just wasn’t enough ticket revenue to pay horn players), a decision that cut into the potential power of Grimm’s backing band.

The show was musically solid, if scaled down. Fans and friends enjoyed watching Grimm soar through his familiar setlist, but afterward the hotel said it had no plans to bring Grimm’s rock-and-soul show back to its stage. (Caesars Entertainment has since partnered with another TV champion—American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, who has headlined at Indigo at Bally’s.)

“You know, I had a lot to get done on that show,” Grimm says today. “It was left in my hands to do it. I had a moment to prove myself, and it worked out fine for a show that had nothing going behind it. I’m not pointing fingers. That’s just how it turned out.”

At that point, Grimm found himself with few options for live performance. Itching to get back onstage, he began to freelance, acting as his own booking agent. This led to a decision that raised eyebrows among many of Grimm’s friends on the Las Vegas entertainment scene: Just two weeks after finishing his run at Flamingo, Grimm set up a one-night acoustic performance at Home Plate Grill and Bar on Blue Diamond just east of Decatur.

Likely, Grimm had effectively cashed out much of the equity he had left as a champion of AGT. He’d performed in front of thousands of fans (more than 3,000 at the Joint), recorded an album with a hotshot producer and landed a choice gig at the center of the Las Vegas Strip. And all of it, suddenly, was relegated to the recent past. Not that Grimm was particularly concerned.

“Work wasn’t coming in the way I wanted it to, and I have always been used to singing in the corner, doing my own thing,” he says. “I’m not used to people just sitting there, looking at me and being quiet. By doing Home Plate, I saw a moment that I could stretch out, play for hours with a tip jar in front of me and the chance to play the songs that I used to play. I had been losing that side of me.”

Following the home plate appearance, Grimm was the focus of talks at a few venues around the city that seemed suited for a return to his intimate-performance roots. Discussions of the Lounge at the Palms dissipated when, it appeared, Grimm simply lost interest. For four months, he didn’t have a Vegas residency.

But this past spring, Station Casinos Entertainment VP Judy Alberti, already familiar with Grimm from his run at Ovation, offered up a regular rotation of shows each Saturday at GVR and also monthly (every fourth Friday) at Aliante’s Access Showroom. He’s not quite playing for free. The cover is $5 per person.

What this schedule and price point means to Grimm’s career is best judged by the entertainer himself. He says he loves the regular routine, which gives him a chance to play occasional road gigs around the country. He has recorded a follow-up to his Epic release, titled Gumbo. Instead of working with a recording-industry giant in a lavish recording studio, Grimm engineered the album himself and recorded it in his home in Mountain’s Edge.

“I actually turned my upstairs into a recording studio,” he says. “I hate recording studios. They’re just dull and sleepy. The lighting is really low. They’re really clinical. Now I can go down and eat, come back up and get back to work. I keep the lighting up so it’s not so dark (laughs).”

Grimm followed through on building that storied home for his grandparents, but even that project was replete with unforeseen issues. “All I’m going to say to you is this: A 1,600-square-foot-house wound up costing me, in the end—in Mississippi, mind you—a little over $200,000.” Grimm cites his own bad choices on contractors for the exorbitant sum, but to use a Vegas term, he was playing with house money anyway. His grandfather is recovering from a stroke, and the home is a comfortable place for him to heal.

The rest of the AGT money, or most of it, is spent. Grimm received about $450,000 of that purported $1 million, after taxes and an additional fee for taking the award in a single lump sum instead of in annual installments. He bought the house, lent or just gave away tens of thousands of dollars, spent quite a lot on that wedding in Maui and bought himself a used Nissan Frontier pickup from his father-in-law.

“I have a little bit left,” he says, shrugging off the expenditures. “Not even $50,000, so I get to make a living in Vegas, which is one of the only places you can do what I do and make a good living.”

He pauses and remembers a time when he was a child, many years ago, when he and his younger sister, Lisa, lived in nearly impoverished conditions in a trailer back in Waveland. Federal authorities actually threatened to put the children, then ages 5 and 3, in a foster home before their grandparents provided care and comfort in their own house.

“We were in this trailer with holes in the floor, and people from the welfare department were always checking on us,” he remembers. “My parents were divorced, and they told my mom they would take us if things didn’t improve. So my grandmother started picking me up and keeping me for the day, then dropping me back off. Every time she’d leave me back at the trailer, I’d chase after her car.”

Once, Grandma Laura left her grandson with a bottle of soap bubbles, hoping to distract him long enough to make a clean getaway. “I dropped the bottle on the ground and went after her,” he says, chuckling. “It was really hard for her to get rid of me.”

Comparatively, the Michael Grimm of today has no real complaints. He’s playing music for a living. He bought a wedding and a house and a truck. He learned a lot about his life and his career. In his world, he’s got it made.

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