‘Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution’ Opens at the New-York Historical Society
For many who grew up in a certain era, the name Bill Graham sparks Proustian memories of life-changing rock-and-roll shows. And if you were in San Francisco or New York City, the music impresario’s Fillmore concert venues were the greatest places in the world to see live music.
Starting in 1965, Graham was booking and promoting shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Three years later, he moved to a different venue, calling it the Fillmore West. Simultaneously, he opened the Fillmore East on Second Avenue and East 6th Street. Both halls had short but storied lives, closing in 1971 due to Graham’s frustration with the rising popularity of large-scale and less intimate arena performances.
Even though the Fillmore East entertained for only three years, it had a massive impact on the rock genre, for both the bands and the fans.
For those who remember – and for those who don’t, but who want to learn a whole lot more about the man who was instrumental in creating an iconic music era – the New-York Historical Society exhibit “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” documents the wild life and wild times of Bill Graham. The exhibit takes you through visuals and stories of Graham’s life, using photos, posters, and memorabilia of the many musicians whose careers and lives were greatly affected by the man. Rock artifacts on display include guitars belonging to Pete Townshend and Carlos Santana, along with Janis Joplin’s tambourine, and one of Jimi Hendrix’s stage outfits.
Bill Graham (1931 – 1991) had quite a dramatic, stranger-than-fiction life. His is also an immigrant story, which these days, is as timely as ever.
Born Wulf Wolodia Grajonca, he was a Jew in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Reich. At age 8, his mother sent him to France where she thought he would be safer. One story has it that he survived in France by eating apples that he and some other children snuck from orchards. And that is allegedly the reason he later would often have barrels of apples greeting patrons at his concerts with signs reading “Have One … or Two.”
He wound up fleeing to America, landing at a foster home in the Bronx at age 10. He never saw his mother and one of his sisters again. Both were killed in the Holocaust.
He picked his American name by looking up names similar to Grajonca in the phone book. The closest he found alphabetically was Graham, and that person’s first name was Bill.
As a teenager, he found himself waiting tables and becoming a maître d’ at the Catskills resorts during the golden age of the “Borscht Belt” where the great Jewish comedians of the 1950s and 1960s cut their teeth. He was quoted saying that his experience in hospitality, along with the poker games he hosted behind the scenes, was good training for his eventual career as a promoter.
He then served in the Korean War, where he was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and came back to New York to try his hand at acting. When that didn’t work out, he moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s. This brought him closer to one of his sisters, from whom he’d been separated when they each fled Nazi Germany.
He became involved with the political San Francisco Mime Troupe. When the leader of the group got arrested for indecency during a performance, Graham organized a benefit concert for them. It was his first foray into event promotion, eventually culminating in his ascendancy to the biggest rock promoter of his era, changing rock and roll by showcasing both big name and lesser known performers at the bicoastal Fillmore venues. He promoted an incredibly diverse variety of performances, and was instrumental in bringing the music of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Laura Nyro, Linda Ronstadt, Tim Buckley, Santana, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Led Zeppelin, and many others to the masses.
On any given night, he would pair trippy, psychedelic musicians on the bill with jazz greats, experimental musicians, Russian poets, and everything in between. As Graham used to like to say, “I never give the public what it wants. I give the public what it should want.”
The recordings of live shows at the Fillmore East are legendary, produced by Graham’s Fillmore Records, and can still be found on CD.
After the closing of the Fillmores, he continued to produce and promote major tours and shows including The Band’s Last Waltz performances, Bob Dylan’s 1974 tour, and the Rolling Stones. And throughout his career, he promoted benefit concerts, spearheading the U.S portion of Live Aid in 1985 and, for Amnesty International, the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope and 1988 Human Rights Now! tours. Robert Greenfield, co-author of Grahams’ autobiography “Bill Graham Presents: My Life inside Rock and Out,” said “Graham raised more money for good charitable causes through Rock ‘n’ Roll than any other man who will ever live.”
His political activism combined with his childhood history as a Holocaust survivor in the mid-80s when he learned that Ronald Reagan intended to lay a wreath at Bitburg’s World War II cemetery, a site where German SS soldiers were buried. His protests resulted in the firebombing of his San Francisco office by neo-Nazis. Later, he was instrumental in the construction of a large public menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square, which is still lit during every Hanukkah.
Graham’s life was tragically cut short in a helicopter crash in 1991, on the way back from a concert. He was 60-years-old.
While working on this article, we received so many poignant and often weirdly wonderful stories about the both Bill Graham and the Fillmore East. You can read them here.
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution runs through August 23.