Bill Graham called himself a Dance Hall Keeper and described his job as the art of public assemblage. In fact, he was the ultimate showman, revolutionizing the symbiotic relationship between artist and audience. A catalyst behind the rise of the San Francisco psychedelic scene of the 1960s, he pioneered the business of concert promotion, fusing theatrics with professionalism in the maelstrom of the counterculture.
He came to San Francisco before the "Summer of Love," falling in with a performance art group called the Mime Troupe. When members were arrested on obscenity charges in the fall of 1965, Graham organized a benefit concert featuring performances by Beat poets and a band called the Jefferson Airplane, which was a great success. Two more benefits at a dance hall called the Fillmore proved to Graham that enormous profits could be made from producing live concerts. In February 1966, he mounted the first official "Bill Graham Presents" shows.
The Fillmore quickly emerged as the nexus of the San Francisco music scene. Graham advertised upcoming gigs with eye-popping psychedelic posters and handbills rendered by local artists, enhanced the concert experience with special effects such as light shows and projections and honored the patron with a greeter at the door and barrel of apples at the top of the stairs. With local, psychedelic headliners like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Jefferson Airplane selling out performances, Graham was free to book opening acts from all corners of the music world, giving hippie crowds their first taste of performers like Miles Davis, Ravi Shakar, Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Staple Singers.
Graham nurtured careers and launched stars like Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, and produced landmark tours for Bob Dylan and the Band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Rolling Stones. He opened additional venues and branched into band management, record labels, and tour promotion. He extended the venue to the stadium and launched the music festival. His ardent concern throughout his career for music as a positive social force drove standard-setting benefits like Live Aid and Amnesty International.
Bill Graham's career is the story of rock—the shaping of a pop-culture revolution into a billion-dollar worldwide business through vision, tenacity, and chutzpah.
In October of 1991, Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter crash returning from a concert. At his memorial concert the following Sunday, an estimated half a million people came to pay tribute. …At long last, the crowd had finally come for him.