Much of my pure love and joy for the musicians that have accented my life can be attributed to one man: Bill Graham. Bill Graham was a rock concert promoter extraordinaire. The counterculture flocked to him like the Pied Piper and he was single handedly responsible for many bands reaching a mainstream audience. He drew me to what remains as my favorite concert venue: The Fillmore in San Francisco. I spent many sun and beer-soaked teenaged days at the Day on the Green concerts. And does anyone remember bota bags? The favored way to sneak in booze. Not that I'd know about that.
Born in Germany 80 years ago today, Bill (born Wolodia Grajonca) grew up the youngest son of a Jewish family that emigrated to Russia prior to Nazism. As perils of the war encroached, his panicked mother placed her children in an orphange. The orphange sent them to France and they were later jetted out to the Bronx in the United States. Bill's mother, Frieda, was killed in Auschwitz. Bill grew up in a foster family in New York and worked hard to lose his foreign accent after the taunting became too much for him.
In the early 1960's Bill moved to San Francisco to be near his sister Rita and while there attended a free concert in Golden Gate Park. It was there he first made contact with the San Francisco Mime Troup, a radical activist theater group often in trouble with the law for their angst-filled performances deemed at times obscene due to their liberal use of profanity. Graham organized a benefit concert to help the group with legal fees and when it was a success his career was born.
Joining forces with the then owner of the famed Fillmore Auditorium owner, Charles Sullivan, Bill Graham had a four year lease-option contract on the site. He also operated Winterland, another SF based concert venue, and opened The Fillmore East. Shoreline Amphitheater, another work of Bill's, in Mountain View, CA continues to bring in packed crowds to their outdoor venue. His legendary Day on the Green concerts at California stadiums are part of the history of rock in America. Credited with being a difficult personality, Graham went on to become the top concert promoter in the business. Attracting acts like Jefferson Airplane, The Fugs, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin,Lenny Bruce, The Staple Singers,Howlin' Wolf,Muddy Waters, Cream, The Band, Otis Redding, Frank Zappa, Quicksilver, the Butterfield Blues Band, and the Grateful Dead Graham's shows brought access to millions of fans over the years.
The Fillmore apple barrel. Still in use today.
Bill was always raising money for something. He helped establish the precedent for large arena benefit concerts working on the US portion of Live Aid and Amnesty International shows. He organized a telethon that raised millions for victims of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake.He helped produce a rally in Washington D.C. to raise awareness for the homeless in our country. When Nelson Mandela toured the U.S. in 1990 to raise money for antiapartheid forces in South Africa, Graham's ticket sales for the Oakland Coliseum event filled the 60,000 seat venue.
On October 25, 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis & The News concert at Concord Pavillion in the East Bay, Graham's helicopter flew directly into a high voltage tower and crashed 20 miles after takeoff killing Bill, his girlfriend Melissa Gold, and pilot Steve Kahn. The concert, still in full swing when Bill left, experienced a power surge and brownout as a result of the impact to the power tower. Mario Cippolina, bass player in The News and long-time friend of Bill, left Concord to drive home after the show. He had offered to drive Graham home knowing the helicopter pilot had been advised not to fly due to high winds in the area. Encountering a road block which, unbeknownst to him at the time was due to the crash, he worried about Graham's safety and he frantically tried calling Bill's home and the pilot's wife to see if they had arrived. Rosann Kahn told Mario she had been paging Steve but that he uncharacteristcally was not answering the page. Within a few hours their fears were confirmed.
The Sunday following his death a free concert at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park called " Laughter, Love, and Music" played to a crowd of 500,000. Aaron Neville, Jackson Browne, Joe Satriani, Robin Williams, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,The Grateful Dead, John Fogerty,, Joan Baez, and Kris Kristofferson all played honoring their friend that day.
He was one of a kind and we all knew it. Thanks for all those music filled days, Bill. You are missed.
A shot from the Bill Graham Memorial Concert 1991
Steve, Bill, MelissaFun facts about Bill Graham:
He once drove a car across country for comedian Buddy Hackett, and when he wasn't allowed to deliver it to him face to face he took off in the car for a trip across country.
He studied acting and was an extra in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's.
He hitchhiked across country several times working day jobs to get a free meal.
When a teacher in elementary school forced him to stop writing with his left hand and switch to his right hand he kicked her, her wig flew off, and he was expelled.
Bill Graham managed the Jefferson Airplane 1967-1968.
Bill was the first to insist medical personnel be on hand at large shows to care for anyone needing assistance.
He had a bit part in the Coppola film Apocolypse Now. He also is in Oliver Stone's film The Doors.
In 2002 Wolfgang's Vault was established. It is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of music as well as selling music memorabilia. Bill Graham's immense personal collection started the sales. I have purchased a cutting board made from the original floor boards of The Fillmore S.F. when it was demolished and reconstructed.