There has never been any non-musician more significant to the San Francisco music scene and, in many ways, the live music industry as a whole, than Bill Graham. On the anniversary of his death today, we wanted to take a closer look at the legendary promoter’s inspiring success story. There’s a reason they named the city’s public auditorium after him: Graham literally created a music scene out of thin air. He helped push along the careers of countless musicians, like notables Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Allman Brothers Band, Santana, and countless more.
The story is even more fascinating than meets the eye. Born in 1931 as Wulf Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin, Graham was shuttled out of Europe through an orphanage program in France and eventually found refuge in America. His eldest sister and mother both died in the Holocaust, but four of his younger sisters survived.
After choosing his new name from a phone book, he moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s and bore witness to the burgeoning counterculture movement. When a theater company (the San Francisco Mime Troupe) was denied permits by the city, Graham threw a benefit concert to help raise funds for the troupe. From then on, Graham went to promote some of the most legendary events of the time, and also founded a number of historic venues like The Fillmore (East, West, etc.), Winterland, and more.
“There was a lot more to Bill than the Fillmore and Winterland and associations with the whole pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll in that era,” said Rabbi Robert Kirschner in an article about a Graham museum exhibition in an article in the LA Times. “He was also a visionary. He basically invented the whole idea of ‘rock theater,’ where you went to a concert for an immersion experience.”
It was Graham who steadily introduced more complex production into performances, and who encouraged intricate artwork for show posters. His attention to detail was unparalleled as he continued to work on bigger events throughout his career. The shows took things outside the box, with unique pairings like Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead. Only someone like Bill Graham would have had the vision to put a show like that together in the 1960s, and he continued that mindset for countless shows in his storied career.
Unfortunately, the story of Bill Graham came to a tragic end, as his life was cut short when his helicopter crashed leaving a Huey Lewis and the News show at Concord Pavillion on this day in 1991. The tribute performance that followed his death on November 3rd, 1991 in Golden Gate Park, dubbed “Laughter, Love and Music,” was the stuff of legends. An estimated 300,000 people gathered to watch the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, a newly-reunited Crosby Stills Nash & Young, John Fogerty and more pay their respects. San Francisco wept, and the city dedicated the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in his honor.
“You learn how deep a person’s roots go and how powerful memory can be… and he was able to turn that into something positive and generous,” said Kirschner.
Thank you, Bill Graham. You may be gone, but your legacy lives on.
[Originally published 10/25/17]