Fleeing Nazi Germany as a child and crossing Europe on foot, Bill Graham arrived at Ellis Island at the age of ten and grew up a foster child playing in the streets of the Bronx.
After earning a Bronze Star in the Korean War, he spent his summers working and hustling the grand Catskills resorts of the 1950s and his winters criss-crossing the United States and Europe. In 1965, Graham landed in San Francisco.
Through his long standing interest in theater, Graham was introduced to and became manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, an avant-garde performance group. Members of the group were arrested for an outdoor production deemed "too risque" by the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Commission.
Graham staged a benefit for the group's legal defense fund with a line-up that included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jefferson Airplane, the Fugs, and John Handy on November 6, 1965. Bill later said, "I didn't know that night was the beginning of anything, but I knew it was the most exciting experience of my life". The Mime Troupe benefit featured rock, jazz, poetry... and the standing room only crowd started dancing. Graham had hit upon an eclectic mix and not only was it popular, it made money. The people who came took their rock music in a casual atmosphere made spectacular through an LSD filter; the psychedelic 60's had arrived.
The Sacred Store: The Early Fillmores
After producing a second benefit for the Mime Troupe, Graham decided to concentrate his efforts on the concert scene. By March 1966, Graham had secured a three-year lease on the Fillmore Auditorium in the Western Addition district of San Francisco. He also began to manage Jefferson Airplane, the Fillmore house band. Graham realized he "had a knack for carrying out the details of public assemblage. Working the room, hiring the right people to do the security ... trying to get closer and closer to the way something should be."
At the Fillmore, and later the Fillmore West, Graham introduced audiences to Otis Redding, The Butterfield Blues Band, the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. He gave local artists free reign to design eye-popping posters and kept ticket prices low. Graham expanded his productions to New York City in 1968, and for three years the Fillmore East was the East Coast music Mecca for the tune in, drop out generation. Concerts included light shows and were a laboratory for technical and musical innovation.
Between 1966 and the closing of the Fillmores in 1971, Graham staged thousands of shows. He found talent and mixed new names and familiar groups in the lineup. He met with the musicians, assembled a workforce that functioned as a family, and kept a close eye on the bottom line. His greatest talents were his keen business sense and his ability to organize events charged with creative energy but presented in a comfortable, safe environment.
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Eat your Veggies, then you can have Ice Cream
The original Fillmore began selling out concerts consistently, and Graham soon realized he didn't have to worry that the top act on a bill would sell tickets and pack the house. Graham now had the commercial freedom to " put supporting acts on that were not only what I wanted to but what I should be putting on."
Paul Butterfield told Graham about Otis Redding. Mike Bloomfield told him about Chuck Berry. Others told him about Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins and The Staple Singers. These musicians and others were heroes to the emerging artists of the 60s. When Graham booked them together, the artists loved it, the audience went wild and the shows were incredible.
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The Promoter that Artists Loved
When Graham produced a show, the artists knew things would be done right. With incredible energy and a tireless commitment to the entire experience, he made sure that the artists were prepared to perform and had a great space in which to do it. Graham handled everything else that might get in the way.
Keith Richards said of Graham, "From top to bottom, he had his eye on everything... I mean with Bill, it was handled... it's a very rare person who can deal with the paper clips and with the boardroom at the same time. Bill was one of those people. Which is why he drove everybody mad... When Bill said he'd take care of it, it was taken care of -- whether you liked it or not."
Bands that were just getting started loved Graham's approach: if your music was good, Graham would stand up for you. Opening for Black Sabbath, the J. Geils Band took the stage for their first Fillmore East show only to hear to the crowd roar for Ozzy and his group. Graham was furious. He strode to the microphone and said, "Listen, I personally invited this band down. It seems that some people here are just interested in seeing Black Sabbath. If ... you don't have the patience to spend the time to give this band an opportunity, will you please leave the theater? We'll ... give you a stub so you can come back for Black Sabbath. But would you please shut the fuck up and give this band a chance?!". Needless to say J. Geils was sensational that night, and went on to enthusiastically play many more dates for Graham at both Fillmores.
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Bringing the Music to the World
The rock concert took off as a music forum and made famous many bands that would have been doomed to coffee houses, garages or high school dances ten years earlier. As top rock acts began demanding more money, they began to perform almost exclusively at large venues where they could make as much money in one date as they could over three or four nights at small venues like the Fillmore.
Stadium shows were already being staged in Philadelphia, Chicago and other major cities and would soon come to San Francisco. Graham saw the future coming in the early 70s and didn't much like the look of it, but he figured if it was going to happen in his city it should be done right. True to form, beginning in 1974 his "Day on the Green" events were different, featuring multiple bands, giant outdoor sets, special backstage areas for artists and the exceptional promotional poster art for which his productions had always been known. Bill Graham produced many of the most significant rock events of the 70s and 80s. In 1973, he produced the Watkins Glen concert. Featuring The Grateful Dead, The Band, and the Allman Brothers, the show drew over six hundred thousand people. He produced the 1974 landmark tour of Bob Dylan and the Band, Dylan's first tour in years. Later that summer, Graham took Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on the first all-stadium tour, visiting 35 cities and playing to 60,000 people and more at each date. He produced The Last Waltz, The Band's legendary 1976 farewell concert featuring the greatest names in rock and a full Thanksgiving dinner for all 5,000 attendees. And Graham managed the Rolling Stones' 1981/82 all-stadium tour, the first truly modern tour with massive custom-built stages and overlapping equipment systems.
In 1985, Graham's activities took a significantly activist turn. Incensed by President Reagan's plan to visit a German military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, he organized a protest rally in late April. Reagan visited Bitburg on May 5; on May 7, Graham's office was destroyed by arson.
Characteristically unintimidated, the backlash did not slow him down but caused Graham to channel his work in a new direction. Over the next six years he helped to raise millions of dollars for a myriad of causes. He produced the U.S. half of the 1985 Live Aid show, the 1986 Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour, the American-Soviet Peace Concert for Nuclear Disarmament in Moscow, In-Concert Against AIDS and benefits for the United Farm Workers, Lighthouse for the Blind, the San Francisco Unified School District, San Francisco's Earthquake Relief and countless other organizations.
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Changing How Rock Evolved
It could be said that Bill Graham was responsible for a phenomenon that included new art, new bands, and a new way of thinking. As the Hippie movement faded from the peace and love-fest to a rabble of misfits and hard drugs, Graham changed directions, too. An admitted aficionado of Latin music, Graham nevertheless appreciated the artists he featured and continued to manage and assemble talent all over the world. His ability to talk his way past band managers and convince artists to play his venues was legendary.
A shrewd, manic man with a brusque manner, Graham was described by Mime Troup member Peter Coyote as "a cross between Mother Teresa and Al Capone," but he was well respected for his talent and his support of artists and musicians. Of Graham, Grace Slick said, "He was one of us and one of them." Peter Gabriel described Bill as "a big steam engine. All fired up, he could carry the world behind him, but you didn't want to get in his way."
On October 25, 1991, a helicopter returning Bill Graham to Novato from a concert in Concord, California lost control in rough weather and crashed into an electric tower. All three occupants were killed on impact. At his memorial concert the following Sunday, an estimated half a million people crowded the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park to pay him tribute. "...At long last, the crowd had finally come for Bill."
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