Chester Leo "Chet" Helms (August 2, 1942 – June 25, 2005), often called the father of San Francisco's 1967 "Summer of Love", was a music promoter and a cultural figure in San Francisco during its hippie period in the late Sixties.
Helms was the founder and manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company and recruited Janis Joplin as its lead singer. He was a producer and organizer, helping to stage free concerts and other cultural events at Golden Gate Park, the backdrop of San Francisco's Summer of Love in 1967, as well as at other venues, including the Avalon Ballroom.
He was the first producer of psychedelic light-show concerts at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom and was instrumental in helping to develop bands that had the distinctive San Francisco Sound. Helms died June 25, 2005 of complications from hepatitis C. He was 62.
Chester Leo Helms was born in Santa Maria, California, the eldest of three sons. His parents were Chester and Novella Helms. Helms' father, a manager at a local sugarbeet mill, died when he was 9. His mother took the boys to Missouri and then to Texas.
Helms spent the rest of his youth in Missouri and Texas, where he learned to organize events by helping to stage benefits for civil rights groups. He enrolled at the University of Texas and became part of the music scene there, a scene that included a very young and inexperienced Janis Joplin. Soon he dropped out of school and, inspired by the Beat Generation writers, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to travel across America in search of freedom and inspiration, he set off wearing shoulder-length hair, beard and rimless glasses hitchhiking across the country. He ended up in San Francisco in 1962.
Later he was to return to Austin with his best friend at the time, Peter Haigh, to visit his friend Janis Joplin. He thought she could make it as a singer in San Francisco. After a week of partying, they convinced Janis to drop out of school and hitchhike back to San Francisco with them. Later he would bring her to the attention of Big Brother and the Holding Company
Family Dog Productions
After arriving in San Francisco in 1962, he scrounged a living various ways, including selling marijuana, an occupation that caused him to go to a boardinghouse at 1090 Page Street. The house was in Haight-Ashbury, then a rundown, low-rent neighborhood. Having met many musicians in his trade, and appreciating the vibrant music scene in San Francisco, he instinctively recognized the need for a forum for musicians to jam. When he saw the large basement at Page Street, he began organizing jam sessions for the local bands and musicians. Helms, a gifted organizer, made those sessions popular and started charging an admission fee of 50 cents. His career as a rock concert promoter began. Big Brother and the Holding Company formed and Helms functioned as their low-key manager. He teamed up Janis Joplin with Big Brother for jam sessions in the Haight-Ashbury basement.
In February 1966 he formed a loose connection with the Family Dog, a commune of hippies living at 2125 Pine street who threw open dances and wild events. Helms was the ideal person to help this group organize their presentations and he moved into the Family Dog house. Their first formal production was a concert at Longshoremen's Hall.
In February 1966, Helms formally founded Family Dog Productions to begin promoting concerts at The Fillmore Auditorium, alternating weekends with another young promoter, Bill Graham. As the concerts became more popular, inevitable "conflicts" arose between the two promoters, based in part on the notion that public conflict and controversy could generate free publicity. Within a few months Helms secured the permits necessary to host events at the Avalon Ballroom, an old dancehall located at the corner of Sutter and Van Ness. Big Brother and the Holding Company debuted there in June 1966. Later Helms would get them the appearance that made them famous, the Monterey Pop Festival where Albert Grossman spotted Joplin and offered her a contract.
The Avalon Ballroom, 1268 Sutter Street, San Francisco became the Family Dog's main venue. Here the Family Dog held a series of legendary concerts between April 1966 and November 1968. Their shows were a mix of artists, from rock to blues, soul, Indian, to rock and roll. To promote their concerts, Family Dog published a series of innovative psychedelic posters, handbills and other ephemera, created by a group of prominent young San Francisco artists including Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse (Mouse Studios), Rick Griffin, Steve Renick and Victor Moscoso. Often printed using intensely colored fluorescent inks, they typically featured a mixture of found images and specially drawn artwork. The posters of Griffin, Mouse and Kelly, in particular, were known for the intricate and highly stylized hand-lettering in which the concert details were written out, which sometimes took considerable time and effort to decipher. Original Avalon posters are now collector's items.
Helms was also involved in joint productions/promotions at the Fillmore, Longshoreman's Hall, and Haight Street's Straight Theater (not all formal Family Dog Dance-Concerts).
Style as promoter
While Graham was an aggressive businessman and professional promoter, Helms presented a folksier image. He related easily to the San Francisco hippie subculture since, in essence, he was one of them. The San Francisco Chronicle called Helms "a towering figure in the 1960s Bay Area music scene," and indeed he was a huge contributor.
Helms embraced music for music's sake and the Beat-hipster-generation-turned-hippy philosophy. While the war raged in Vietnam and the nation coped with racial problems and assassinations, the anti-war, anti-establishment youth thrived in the throes of a social revolution. Meanwhile, Helms was cranking out bands and musicians espousing the same lifestyle as this new audience, while giving the very distinct impression that he was uninterested in financial gain.
His benign image could be deceptive. According to Jay Ferguson of Spirit, Graham would negotiate shrewdly and would frequently offer a lower fee to a band than Helms would, but when the concert was over, he would pay the band in full; Helms did not always do likewise. Some of the more serious bands (ones not subsidized by trust funds) came to prefer Graham's hard-nosed, businesslike approach. Graham did covertly help Helms financially at various times during the 1970s, keeping San Francisco in the fore as the West Coast Music mecca.
The core San Francisco rock bands, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service (including pre-Dino Valenti), would play for both Graham's concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium, once a Black Muslim temple, and the Family Dog at Helms' Avalon dances.
Helms' shows were always more relaxed and offered a pleasant alternative to Bill Graham Presents dances, at a more reasonable admission, and with more room for the stoned, arm-waving type of solo dancing that personified the era. The nearby Mt. Zion Hospital kept a late-night clinic to accommodate the many drug overdoses from the Fillmore.
Family Dog Concerts
In the context of the Avalon's "anti-business model," and loose ambience, Helms' Family Dog would always carry great shows, with premier musical acts. The list is long, compiled from the memory of having been there and from poster art websites. It is presented here:
Helms presented top blues performers including Country Joe and The Fish; Howlin' Wolf; Bo Diddley; Muddy Waters; Little Walter; Buddy Guy; Junior Wells; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Buddy Miles; James Cotton Blues Band; John Mayall; Big Mama Thornton; Albert Collins; Steve Miller; Son House; Mike Bloomfield; Elvin Bishop; Blues Project, with Al Kooper; John Hammond; Charlie Musselwhite; Siegel-Schwall Band; rock bands like the Doors; Buffalo Springfield; the Byrds; Bill Haley & His Comets; The Kinks;The Edwin Hawkins Singers; the Animals' Eric Burdon & War; Mothers of Invention; Lovin' Spoonful; The Carlos Santana Blues Band; Sir Douglas Quintet; the Soul Survivors; the Fugs; Blood, Sweat & Tears; The Association; Shorty Featuring Georgie Fame; Iron Butterfly; the Youngbloods, with Jesse Colin Young; Vanilla Fudge; Steppenwolf; Poco; Love, with Arthur Lee; sarode-player and Indian music teacher, Ali Akbar Khan; Sandy Bull; Blue Cheer; the Leaves; New Riders of the Purple Sage; Barry McGuire; Flamin' Groovies; the Loading Zone; It's a Beautiful Day; Joy of Cooking; the Grass Roots; the Sons of Adam; Sons of Champlin; Captain Beefheart; the Electric Flag; Velvet Underground; Pacific Gas and Electric; Moby Grape; the Sopwith Camel; 13th Floor Elevators; The Charlatans; Allmen Joy (see http://wingswest.net); Mother Earth; Southern Comfort; The Ace of Cups; Tyrannosaurus Rex; Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band; Flying Burrito Brothers; Congress of Love; Notes From the Underground; Chrome Circus; Initial Shock; Oxford Circle; Daily Flash; Electric Train; Sparrow; the Orchestra; Hourglass; Kaleidoscope; Mt. Rushmore; Other Half; Phoenix; Lothar & the Hand People; Commander Cody; Cleveland Wrecking Company; The Rhythm Dukes; A.B. Skhy; Frumious Bandersnatch; Eighth Penny Matter; Jimmerfield Legend; South Side Sound; Super Ball; Solid Muldoon; Box Top; and jazz artists Sun Ra and San Francisco's own John Handy; Charles Lloyd; the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood; and folksters Joan Baez; Dave Van Ronk; Jim Kweskin Jug Band; Taj Mahal; Tim Buckley and Flatt & Scruggs.
To concertgoers, Helms' contributions to the music world, like introducing a singer he knew in Texas, Janis Joplin, to the San Francisco music scene, were not always well publicized, but witnessing the final product of Joplin, with her powerful performances was a spectacle. First introduced as a new bandmember of Big Brother, she brought what the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, and Big Brother did not seem at that point to have – a lead singer to match Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin and Grace Slick. Joplin later left Big Brother to record solo albums and to rapidly grow in fame, accelerated by her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
With Joplin as the lead singer, Helms became the group's manager and introduced them on stage when they made their crucial appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, a performance that marked Joplin's elevation to national prominence.
Creativity was the essence, borrowed from (while re-popularizing) a vast spectrum of musical idioms, including R&B, East Indian, pop, country, bluegrass, and, to an extent, jazz. Music that featured long solos suited the audiences, and was soon used by bands everywhere, in performance and recordings, later becoming a major vehicle for helping launch what would become a new FM radio station music format – the less-commercial "Album-Oriented Rock," in the form of "underground" stations that sprang up coast-to-coast. Exposure on these airwaves further helped the popularity of concert-oriented rock and bands that would play for hours without stopping, as the two-minute hit temporarily was no longer the objective. Songs with long, art-centric solos gained reaffirmation with the increasing commercial success of the radio stations that became part of the new "movement" genre.
Family Dog Speakers/Poets and Heroes of the Hour
Sometimes Helms cast the music promoter role aside and the Family Dog would feature speakers Alan Watts, Dr. Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, poet Allen Ginsberg, and other counter-culture gurus. Helms is linked in San Francisco lore with Bill Graham, the Diggers, Emmett Grogan, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Neal Cassady, Kenneth Rexroth, Ralph J. Gleason, and others.
Bill Graham Presents shows evolved more into high-power, professional lineups of better-known headline bands that made him known as the can-do guy that he was, while Helms, although managing to produce top-flight bands, still showcased bands that tended to be hipper and local. Helms didn't seem to have the need to hire zealous uniformed security guards, so teenagers found it easier to sneak into his dances. Helms ultimately allowed free admission after midnight. The San Francisco Family Dog dances later re-emerged in a new location, the former Ocean Beach Pavilion turned Slot car track that was right next door to the old skating rink and "Bull Pup Enchiladas" at Ocean Beach, at 660 The Great Highway in San Francisco's Richmond district.
In his career Helms used other locations like ventures in Denver, Portland, and joint productions/promotions at the Fillmore, Longshoreman's Hall, and Haight Street's Straight Theater (not all formal Family Dog Dance-Concerts), etc.
Helms left the concert business in 1970 except for managing a few later events: Tribal Stomp at Berkeley's Greek Theater (1978); Tribal Stomp II at the Monterey County Fairgrounds (1979); a concert series at San Francisco's Maritime Hall in 1995 under the Family Dog name; and a 30th Anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park (1997), a free event attended by 60,000 people.
Helms became an accomplished art dealer, selling American and European paintings and sculpture at his Atelier Doré art gallery on Bush Street in San Francisco, from 1980 until 2004. True to his nature, he never turned down a request for money and helped countless in that period. Although having a great eye for artwork his philanthropy never guaranteed the rent on time. When he retired in 2004 he was suffering from Hepatitis C. After suffering a mild stroke he died within days, on June 25, 2005. Helms is memorialized in a "bright niche decorated with photographs and memorabilia" at the Neptune Society Columbarium.
Chet Helms Memorial
On October 30, 2005, San Francisco celebrated Helms' life with a free nine-hour Sunday rock concert in Golden Gate Park, named the "Tribal Stomp" attended by tens of thousands, and featuring a full lineup of bands, including the old core San Francisco rock bands, and others including: The Turtles, Canned Heat, Dan Hicks (singer), the Charlatans, Country Joe McDonald, Barry Melton, Blue Cheer, Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner, "It's a Beautiful Day'"s David LaFlamme, Quicksilver Gold (derived from Quicksilver Messenger Service), Lee Michaels, Lydia Pense Cold Blood, Pete Sears, Nick Gravenites (Electric Flag), Harvey Mandel, Jorge Santana, Narada Michael Walden, Merle Saunders, Moby Grape Jerry Miller, and Wavy Gravy (from Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters" fame).
On July 24, 2005 a fundraiser and Tribute concert to Chet was held at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The show was organized by Dawn Holliday (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival organizer), Roger McNamee (who put together a collection of posters from major bay area artists) and Pete Sears who was responsible for finding and organizing the musicians. Kathy Peck of the H.E.A.R. foundation organized the online auction. Pete Sears had been talking with Chet while he was sick in hospital and offered to help get a benefit together to take care of some pressing bills Chet was concerned about. Chet wholeheartedly gave the benefit his blessing. The concert details were well underway and most artists in place when Chet died. They decided to carry on with the fundraiser anyway and turned the concert into a tribute to Chet. The show sold out in just a few days, leaving many lined up outside unable to get in. But the concert obtained its primary goal which was to raise funds to pay off Chet's bills…all money raised was given to Chet's brother John. The concert was highly successful and featured such artists as: T Bone Burnett, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, David Nelson, Country Joe McDonald, Leigh Stephens, Bobby Vega, Joli Valenti & Friends, and the Flying Other Brothers.
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- SF Chronicle, July 25, 2010. "Where to Find Celebrities' Resting Places" by Charlie Wells
- Chet Helms Memorial Concert Golden Gate Park FREE Rock Concert October 30th