‘Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution’ Opens at the New-York Historical Society

Posted on: February 19th, 2020 at 5:09 am by

Jimi Hendrix. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

An era of great poster design. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

Bill Graham’s yearbook photo from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

Janis Joplin, her tambourine, and her microphone. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

Pete Townshend’s guitar. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

Live Aid. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

“Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” by the Ramones automatically plays through your headphones. Photo: Lori Greenberg

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.

Recent Stories

Moving in New York — All the Little, Weird and Crazy Things [SPONSORED]

New York City, often described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, is one of the most densely populated major cities in the USA. This is why moving in New York is a living nightmare for most people. “People generally find moving stressful. But moving in New York City is a whole […]

The City’s Battle to Keep One Artist from Reaching the Allen Bathhouse

One street artist remains a thorn in the Lower East Side of the city. Nadja Rose Madder will not be deterred from her artistic muse – the Allen Street Bathhouse at Delancey. Parks Department claimed the chain-link enclosure installed last week was a “safety mechanism” to protect spillover of art and belongings into traffic. But […]

Ace Hotel Quietly Closes ‘Sister City’ on the Bowery

The Ace Hotel’s boutique brand on the Bowery, Sister City, is closed for good. The lodge (and its rooftop bar) had shuttered at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, never to return. One need only search online for Sister City to see that Google returns a “permanently closed” status, and the official website […]

Bialystoker Tower Tops out at 30 Stories on East Broadway

One month is an eternity when covering the rising real estate in the neighborhood. In that time since our last follow-up, the tower flanking the Bialystoker Nursing Home finally reached the top. The shadow-casting luxury development at 232 East Broadway reached its thirty-story pinnacle late last week. Token stars-and-stripes affixed to the top. Round Square […]

Patti Smith Rallies with Supporters for Elizabeth Street Garden as City Terminates Lease

The legal and political battle to save Elizabeth Street Garden from redevelopment intensified last week as the city sent the beloved urban oasis in Little Italy a notice terminating its month-to-month lease at the end of October. News of the potential eviction broke over social media in the midst of garden plans to host a […]