Something strange happened when Bill Graham died, or, more precisely, when people learned of his death. Many who’d always thought of the veteran rock promoter as brusque and calculating suddenly felt a palpable sense of loss realizing just what Graham had meant to rock music. He was the scrappy, vociferous funnel through which America came to know the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Graham, who was 60 when the helicopter he was riding in crashed into a utility pole near San Francisco on Oct. 25, was not always well liked in life, but he became much appreciated and sorely missed in death.
Graham built his fiery reputation in the late ’60s, an era when businessmen were freely called capitalist pigs, when familiar phrases like ”the man can’t take away our music” weren’t intentionally ironic, and when music was supposed to belong to the people — not to the person charging admission at the door. At a time when grown men and women gave their children names like Free, Graham was the most visible concert promoter in America, if not the world. He rolled up his sleeves and publicly soiled his hands in pursuit of that great unmentionable, cold cash, while the artists he presented shared their music, while keeping their bank balances to themselves. Yet a full quarter-century after the original Fillmore opened in San Francisco — on Nov. 6, 1965, with a concert starring the Dead (then named the Warlocks) and the Airplane — performers are negotiating multimillion-dollar recording contracts, 25-year-old women have long since changed their names from Free to Jennifer, and Bill Graham is seen less as a profit seeker than as a man of integrity and vision.
If he had a peak year, it was probably 1968, when he opened the Fillmore East in New York, moved the old Fillmore a few blocks and dubbed it Fillmore West, and launched Winterland, originally a San Francisco skating rink. But Graham, who delighted in providing the ultimate concert experience, had bigger fish to fry: He produced 1973’s massive Watkins Glen, N.Y., festival, put together the Band’s 1976 Last Waltz concert at Winterland, and worked on the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert, 1987’s Soviet-American Peace Concert in Moscow, and 1988’s Amnesty International tour. Weeks before he died, he produced a Metallica concert at Oakland Coliseum. He was never out of touch and was never less than the ultimate perfectionist.
Born Wolfgang Grajonca to Russian Jews in Berlin, he grew up in the heart of horror. His father was killed in an accident two days after the boy was born. His mother died in a concentration camp. He and a sister were among a group of orphans who escaped the Nazis on foot, aided by the Red Cross. His sister starved to death along the way. Graham was one of 11 who survived.
As a young refugee in the U.S., he was taken in by a family in the Bronx. At 18, he changed his name to Bill Graham. He won a Bronze Star in the Korean War, studied acting and accounting, and eventually became business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, under whose auspices he staged his first concerts and took his first steps toward becoming rock’s preeminent promoter.
When Graham closed his Fillmore theaters in 1971, he cited increased costs and what he gloomily foresaw as rock’s overwhelmingly commercial direction. He was right. And it didn’t take him long to adjust his own style — his shift to stadium shows and a prescient move into rock merchandising proved that his business instincts and organizational skills were, as always, second to none. From the beginning of his career to the very end, Graham set the standard.
What made him more than a businessman, ultimately, is the role he played in shaping our perception of rock & roll. Back in his Fillmore days, he wanted his audience to grow and learn: He presented Miles Davis to the same audience that had come to see Neil Young; he paired the Who with Woody Herman and his orchestra; and he put John Mayall on a bill with Sha Na Na. Sony Music recently reissued the soundtrack to a 1972 documentary, Fillmore: The Last Days. Graham’s magic is still there, especially in the accompanying brochure listing the eclectic Fillmore bookings from start to finish. ”I’m not a hippie,” he once said. ”I don’t sell love. I sell talent and environment.” Twenty years later, Bill Graham’s contemporaries just sell seats.