Bill Graham (promoter)
Bill Graham, circa 1990.
January 8, 1931
|Died||October 25, 1991
Vallejo, California, U.S.
|Years active||1960s–1991; his death|
Bill Graham (January 8, 1931 – October 25, 1991) was an American impresario and rock concert promoter from the 1960s until his death in a helicopter crash. He fled from Germany and, in 1941, from France to escape the Holocaust, and at ten settled in a foster home in the Bronx, New York. Graham graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and from City College with a business degree.
In early 1960s, he moved to San Francisco, and, in 1965, begun to manage a theater troupe, organized a benefit concert, and began promoting more concerts eventually full-time. Graham made famous the Fillmore that was the proving ground for rock bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. His foresight, toughness, successes, and popularity allowed him to become the top concert promoter in rock music and a multimillionaire, though plagued by substance dependence, failed relationships, and greed.
In the 1980s, Graham was overshadowed by MTV promoting video rock.
Early life 
Graham was born Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin, the youngest son of Frieda (née Sass) and Yankel Grajonca, an engineer, a lower-middle-class Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia prior to the rise of Nazism. Graham's father died two days after his son's birth. Graham was given the nickname Wolfgang by his family early in his life. Due to the increasing peril to Jews in Germany, Graham's mother placed her son and his younger sister in an orphanage in Berlin. The orphanage sent them to France in a pre–Holocaust exchange of Jewish children for Christian orphans. Graham's older sisters stayed behind with his mother. After the fall of France, Graham was among a group of Jewish orphans spirited out of France, some of whom finally reached America. But a majority of the children—including Graham's older sister Tolla—did not survive the difficult journey. Graham thus was one of the One Thousand Children, (OTC), those mainly Jewish children who managed to flee Hitler and Europe and then came directly to America, but whose parents were forced to stay behind. Nearly all these OTC parents were killed by the Reich. Graham's mother died while imprisoned at Auschwitz. Graham had five sisters, Rita, Evelyn, Sonja, Ester and Tolla, only two of whom survived. Ester moved to the United States and was very close to Graham in his later life. His sister Rita escaped, first to Shanghai and then (after the war) to the United States.
Once in the United States, Graham stayed in a foster home in The Bronx in New York City. After being taunted as an immigrant and being called a Nazi because of his German accented English, Graham first worked on his accent, eventually being able to speak in a perfect New York accent, and also changed his name to be more "American." (He found "Graham" in the phonebook, it was closest to his real surname "Grajonca." According to Graham, both "Bill" and "Graham" were meaningless to him). Graham graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and then obtained a business degree from City College. He was later quoted as describing his training as that of an "efficiency expert[disambiguation needed]".
Graham was drafted into the United States Army in 1951, and served in the Korean War, where he was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Upon his return to the States he worked as a waiter/maître d' in Catskill Mountain resorts in upstate New York during their heyday. He was later quoted as saying his experience as a maître d' and with the poker games he hosted behind the scenes was good training for his eventual career as a promoter. Tito Puente, who played some of these resorts, went on record once saying that Graham was avid to learn Spanish from him, but only cared about the curse words. It was during the 1950s that Graham became a champion mambo dancer in the mambo clubs of New York City.
Graham moved from New York to San Francisco in the early 1960s to be closer to his sister, Rita. He was invited to attend a free concert in Golden Gate Park, where he made contact with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater group. He gave up a promising business career to manage the troupe in 1965. After Mime Troupe leader Ronnie Davis was arrested on obscenity charges during an outdoor performance, Graham organized a benefit concert to cover the troupe's legal fees. The concert was a success, and Graham saw a business opportunity.
Graham began promoting more concerts to raise funds for the Mime Troupe and eventually left the troupe to promote concerts full-time. Charles Sullivan was a mid-20th century black entrepreneur and businessman in San Francisco who owned the master lease on the Fillmore Auditorium. Bill approached Charles to put on the Second Mime Troupe appeals concert at the Fillmore Auditorium on December 10, 1965 using Sullivan's dance hall permit for the show. Graham later secured a contract from Sullivan for the open dates at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966. Graham credits Sullivan with giving him his break in the music promotion business. Charles Sullivan was found murdered on August 2, 1966, south of Market Street in San Francisco. To this day the murder remains unsolved.
One of the first concerts Graham promoted was in partnership with Chet Helms of the Family Dog organization and featured the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The concert was an overwhelming success and Graham saw an opportunity with the band. Early the next morning, Graham called the band's manager, Albert Grossman, and obtained exclusive rights to promote them. Shortly thereafter, Chet Helms arrived at Graham's office, asking how Graham could have cut him out of the deal. Graham pointed out that Helms would not have known about it unless he had tried to do the same thing to Graham and advised him to "get up early" in the future.
A charismatic but often difficult personality, Graham produced shows attracting elements of America's now legendary counterculture of the time such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and The Fish, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The Committee, The Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, and, a particular favorite of Graham's, The Grateful Dead. He was the manager of Jefferson Airplane during 1967 and 1968. His successes and popularity allowed him to become the top concert promoter in rock music. He operated the famous venues the Fillmore West and Winterland (both in San Francisco) and the Fillmore East (in New York City), where the best up-and-coming acts would come to play. Graham also owned a record label, Fillmore Records, which was in operation from 1969 to circa 1976. Some of the artists who signed with Graham were Rod Stewart, Elvin Bishop and Cold Blood, although of these it seems only Bishop actually issued albums on the Fillmore label.
In New York City, he formed a booking agency called The Millard Agency which organized the booking of bands into various venues across the US. Because his music venue was the Fillmore, it seemed obvious to call the booking agency Millard. (Millard Fillmore was the thirteenth president of the United States.) In his music venues, he also opened certain weekday nights for unknown bands, like Santana, to get exposure.
In 1971, he closed the Fillmores on both coasts, citing a need to "find [himself]". The movie Fillmore and the album Fillmore: The Last Days document the closing of the Fillmore West. Graham retreated to a Greek island, but found the quietude disconcerting and later admitted being disappointed that no one there knew of him. He returned to promoting, first organizing concerts at smaller venues, like the Berkeley Community Theatre on the campus of Berkeley High School. He then leased out the Winterland Arena in San Francisco and promoted shows at the Cow Palace Auditorium in Daly City.
Graham promoted the West-Coast leg of the legendary The Rolling Stones American Tour 1972, also known as S.T.P. Tour (for Stones Touring Party), as well as parts of the Rolling Stones 1975 and 1978 tours. He would then promote the entire Rolling Stones American Tour 1981 and Rolling Stones European Tour 1982. When the Stones returned to touring in 1989 with the Steel Wheels tour, Mick Jagger accepted the offer of Michael Cohl's The BCL Group (Ballard Cohl Labatt). to buy the concert, sponsorship, merchandising, radio, television, and film rights. Steel Wheels became the most financially successful in history. Graham later discovered that Cohl had offered only slightly more money. Graham took Jagger's repudiation as a personal defeat, writing "Losing the Stones was like watching my favorite lover become a whore."
In 1973 he promoted the largest outdoor concert at that time at Watkins Glen, New York with Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Band. Over 600,000 paid were in attendance. He continued promoting stadium sized concerts at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco with Led Zeppelin in 1973 and started a series of stadium concerts at The Oakland Coliseum Stadium he called Day On The Green (DOG) in 1973 until 1992. Some of these concerts featured acts such as Grateful Dead and The Who in October 1976, and Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan in 1987. His first large-scale outdoor benefit concert was for the San Francisco after-school programs, called the SNACK concert and starred Bob Dylan, with Neil Young, various members of the Grateful Dead and members of The Band.
In the mid-1980s, in conjunction with the city of Mountain View, California, and Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Wozniak, he masterminded the creation of the Shoreline Amphitheatre, which became the premier venue for outdoor concerts in Silicon Valley. Throughout his career, Graham promoted benefit concerts.
He would go on to set the standard for well-produced large-scale rock concerts, such as the American portion of Live Aid in JFK Stadium, Philadelphia on July 13, 1985, as well as the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope and 1988 Human Rights Now! tours for Amnesty International. In addition, he presented regular bay area outdoor concerts at the Oakland Coliseum, referred to as "Days on the Green," and was known to aggressively challenge potential competition.
Graham's monopoly business practices went as far as strong-arm contracts with the University of California Regents to control on-campus entertainment venues, thus preventing ASUC and other student organizations from promoting their own rock concerts in the 1980s. In the 1980s, he teamed up with BASS Tickets to drive small ticket-distribution companies out of business in the Bay Area, creating a de facto monopoly. After the smaller operations failed, the remaining one, Ticketmaster (formerly BASS), raised prices to unprecedented levels. Its only opposition came from a few bands, notably Pearl Jam, who protested that the company's high ticketing fees were unfair to music fans. Such practices were targeted by the California Senate in S.B. 815.
Graham was recognized as an expert promoter who genuinely cared about both the artists and the attendees at his concerts. He was the first to ensure that medical personnel were on site for large shows and was both a contributor and supporter of the St. Mark's Free Clinic in New York and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which he often used as medical support at events. He enjoyed putting together groups onstage from different ethnic backgrounds—many of whom were ignored by other promoters—and he had an eye for pleasing his audience, while making an effort to educate them in styles of music they would otherwise not have been exposed to. Graham was credited with assisting the early careers of artists like Santana, Eddie Money and Paul Collins' Beat.
Graham's status as a Holocaust survivor came into play in the mid-1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. When Graham learned that Reagan intended to lay a wreath at the Bitburg World War II Cemetery in Germany, where SS soldiers were also buried, he organized protests against the act. During the same month that Reagan visited the cemetery, Graham's office was firebombed by Neo-Nazis. Graham, in France at the time, meeting with Bob Geldof to organize the first Live Aid concert, was informed of the fire via telephone. He responded as follows: "Was anybody hurt?" It was only after he was told that everyone was okay, he asked, "Is anything left?"
Graham had a lifelong dream to become a character actor, professing a great admiration for Edward G. Robinson. He appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, as a promoter. In 1990, director Barry Levinson and actor Warren Beatty provided an opportunity for Graham to take a more substantive role by casting him as Charles "Lucky" Luciano in the film Bugsy. During one scene, Graham is shown in a Latin dance number, a style of dancing Graham had embraced as a teenager in New York. He also appears as a promoter in the 1991 Oliver Stone film, The Doors. He also had a small part in Coppola's 1987 Gardens of Stone playing the part of Don Brubaker as a hippie war protester at a garden party during the Vietnam War who gets into an argument with James Caan's character and is beaten up.
Graham was instrumental in commissioning and marketing psychedelic concert posters by designers including Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin. Bill Sagan (Former CEO of EBP) of Minnetonka, Minnesota bought the Bill Graham Presents archives and has organized hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of merchandise and video/audio recordings of concerts collected by Graham. Sagan is now selling some of the collection at Wolfgang's Vault referring to Graham's childhood nickname.
Graham was killed in a helicopter crash near Vallejo, California on October 25, 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion. Graham had attended the event to discuss promoting a benefit concert for the victims of the 1991 Oakland firestorm. Once he had obtained the commitment from the News to perform, he returned to his helicopter, which crashed shortly after take-off, just 20 miles from the concert site.
Flying in weather reported as low overcast, rain and gusty winds, the aircraft flew directly into a 223-foot high-voltage tower along Hwy 37, which runs between Vallejo and Marin County. Also killed in the crash was pilot Steve Kahn and Graham's girlfriend, Melissa Gold, ex-wife of author Herbert Gold, and mother of independent filmmaker Ari Gold.
Graham was married at one time to San Francisco artist Bonnie Lipshitz MacLean who is the mother of his son David. Bonnie was the first bookkeeper at the Fillmore and designed some of the posters for concerts Bill promoted. He would occasionally introduce Bonnie from the stage as "the world's greatest broad". He also had several long-term relationships. He was survived by his sisters and two sons, David Graham and Alex Graham, as well as his stepson, Thomas Sult.
Following his death, his company, Bill Graham Presents, was taken over by a group of employees. Graham's sons remained a core part of the new management team. The new owners sold the company to SFX Promotions, which in turn sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment. The BGP staff did not embrace the Clear Channel name, and several members of the Graham staff eventually left the company, including former President/CEO Gregg Perloff and former Senior Vice President Sherry Wasserman, who started their own company, Another Planet Entertainment. Eventually Clear Channel separated itself from concert promotion and formed Live Nation, which is managed by many former Clear Channel executives. Live Nation is now the world's largest concert production/promotion company and is no longer legally affiliated in any way with Clear Channel.
In tribute, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium was renamed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. On November 3, 1991, a free concert called "Laughter, Love and Music" was held at Golden Gate Park to honour Graham, Gold and Kahn. An estimated 300,000 people attended to view many of the entertainment acts Graham had supported including Santana, Grateful Dead, John Fogerty, Robin Williams, Journey (reunited), and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (reunited). The video for the song "I'll Get By" from Eddie Money's album Right Here was dedicated to Graham. Graham's images and poster artwork still adorn the office walls at Live Nation's new San Francisco office. With the band Hardline, Neal Schon of Journey composed a piece entitled "31–91" in Graham's honor in 1992.
|“||A couple of years ago, a couple of geniuses put on something called Woodstock Festival. It was a tragedy. Groups recognised that they could go into larger cattle markets, play less time and make more dollars. What they've done is to destroy the rock industry.||”|
See also 
- Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 448 F.3d 605 (2d Cir. 2006)
- Glatt, John. Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock. Birch Lane Press, 1993. p. 3
- "Bill Graham, Lead Act at Last". Highbeam.com. October 7, 1992. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "Newsbank website". Nl.newsbank.com. May 6, 1991. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "Bill Graham, Rock Impresario, Dies at 60 in Crash", New York Times obituary
- Graham, Bill; Greenfield, Robert. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, Delta, 1992, p. 37
- Lambert, Bruce (October 27, 1991). "Bill Graham, Rock Impresario, Dies at 60 in Crash". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2008.
- Kipen, David. "Flawed look at career of blacklisted director", San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2001. Accessed September 14, 2009. "The American 20th century went to high school at DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx. Multicultural before there was a name for it – at least a polite one – Clinton nurtured such figures as Bill Graham, James Baldwin, George Cukor, Neil Simon and Abraham Lincoln Polonsky."
- "Latin Music USA", PBS TV, broadcast 2010
- Randie Paige Lewis; Luckydog Arts and Design; www.luckydogarts.com; email@example.com, 831-423-4239. "Bill Graham Bio". Billgrahamfoundation.org. Archived from the original on June 15, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "History San Francisco Mime Troupe". Sfmt.org. Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "The Fillmore: Timeline". Pbs.org. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "The Paul Butterfield Blues Band Concert". Wolfgangsvault.com. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "Fillmore Records". Rock and Roll Map. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
- "Satisfaction: The Life and Times of Michael Cohl". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- in book Bill Graham Presents
- "California Senate Bill, S.B. 815". Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- Randie Paige Lewis; Luckydog Arts and Design; www.luckydogarts.com; firstname.lastname@example.org, 831-423-4239. "About Bill Graham Memorial Foundation". Billgrahamfoundation.org. Archived from the original on June 15, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "Haight Ashbury Free Clinics: RockMed". Hafci.org. Archived from the original on June 11, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- Bill Graham postcards and handbills
- Bugsy IMDB
- The Doors IMDB
- Gardens of Stone IMDB
- "About Wolfgang's Vault". Wolfgangsvault.com. July 3, 1973. Archived from the original on July 09 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- NTSB Probable Cause report
- Bill Graham Death[dead link]
- "Bill Graham's Stairway to Heaven...". Check-Six.com. Archived from the original on June 09 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "Helicopter". Ari Gold Films. Retrieved October 26, 2011.
- "Clear Channel Music Group Splits Bill Graham Presents Into Two Entities". California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming: Prnewswire.com. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- Sloan, Paul (November 30, 2007). "Live Nation rocks the music industry". CNN. Archived from the original on June 06 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- "Laughter, Love and Music". Dead.net. Archived from the original on May 25, 2008. Retrieved April 17, 2008.
- "California Whirls". The Vid. Archived from the original on April 18, 2008. Retrieved April 17, 2008.
- Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd. p. 225. CN 5585.
Further reading 
- Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out, re-published 2004. (By Robert Greenfield and Bill Graham) ISBN 0-306-81349-1
- Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock, 1993. (By John Glatt) ISBN 1-55972-205-3
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Bill Graham (promoter)|
- Bill Graham Foundation
- Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
- Interview with Robert Greenfield
- Concert Archive Draws Digital Suit – December 2006 MP3 Newswire article about the fight over Wolfgang's Vault and the digital rights to the Bill Graham concert legacy.
- Bill Graham's Stairway to Heaven...
- Wolfgangs Vault(live music audio, video and merchandise)