Graham, Bill (originally, Grajonca, Wolfgang)

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Graham, Bill (originally, Grajonca, Wolfgang)

Graham, Bill (originally, Grajonca, Wolfgang), rock music’s most famous and influential concert producer from the mid-1960s through the 1980s; b. Berlin, Germany, Jan. 8, 1931; d. Oct. 25, 1991, near Vallejo, Calif. Bill Graham escaped the Nazi persecution of Jews as a child, fleeing first to France, then to the U.S. in 1941, where he was raised in the Bronx by a foster family. He formally changed his name to Bill Graham in 1949, when granted U.S. citizenship. He later served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War and graduated from N.Y.C. Coll. with a degree in business administration before moving to Calif. By 1960, he was an executive with the Allis-Chalmers farm equipment company in San Francisco.

In 1965, Bill Graham quit his position to take over management of the Mime Troupe, a radical street-theater improvisational group. On Nov. 6, 1965, Bill Graham staged a benefit concert for the Mime Troupe at San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall with various Bay Area musicians. On Dec. 10, he promoted another benefit concert at the 1100-seat Fillmore Auditorium in one of San Francisco’s black ghettos with the Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society (with Grace Slick), and the Warlocks (later the Grateful Dead). The financial and artistic success of the benefits, along with his subsequent production of the now-legendary Trips Festival at the Longshoreman’s Hall in January 1966, encouraged Graham to regularly present rock shows at the Fillmore Auditorium. By year’s end, he was also presenting concerts at the 5400-seat Winterland Arena and managing, if briefly, the Jefferson Airplane. The concerts became astoundingly successful and featured both little-known local talent and big-name outside acts.

Bill Graham presented his last show at the Fillmore Auditorium in July 1968. He opened Fillmore East in N.Y. in March 1968 and assumed management of the Carousel Ballroom on San Francisco’s Market Street in August. The old dance hall, which he renamed Fillmore West, had been run by the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead since early in the year. Over the next three years, Graham presented virtually every major rock act at the Fillmores, while giving little- known acts a chance to perform and booking a number of nonrock acts such as Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce, and the Staple Singers.

Graham’s success with the Fillmores encouraged the establishment of similar venues across the country and marked the heyday of concert rock. He opened a talent booking agency in October 1968, and formed Fillmore and San Francisco Records in February 1969, recording Cold Blood and Elvin Bishop before dissolving the labels at the beginning of 1972. With the demise of the ballroom concert scene following the Woodstock Festival of August 1969, Graham announced his intention to close the Fillmores.

By July 1971, both Fillmore East and Fillmore West had been closed. Graham “retired” for a time, but was back in 1972, producing the Rolling Stones’ tour. He booked acts into the Winterland Arena and produced the massive Watkins Glen Pop Festival in upstate N.Y. in 1973, the largest gathering of its kind. In 1974, he staged the Band’s celebrated Last Waltz and produced George Harrison’s tour, Bob Dylan’s comeback tour, and the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. By 1978, the Winterland venue had also become obsolete, giving way to impersonal and lucrative festivals and stadium concerts. On New Year’s Eve 1978, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Blues Brothers, and the Grateful Dead played the final performance at Winterland, a hall once castigated as overly large and acoustically unsound, but now sorely missed.

Bill Graham became the master of arena concert production, supervising the Rolling Stones’ 1981 world tour and presenting the US Festival near San Bernardino in 1982. He reopened San Francisco’s most successful nightclub, the Old Waldorf, as Wolfgang’s in 1983. Withdrawing from the day-to-day operation of his organization, Graham appeared in small roles in the films Apocalypse Now, The Cotton Club, and Gardens of Stone during the 1980s. His organization financed out-door amphitheaters in Sacramento (Cal Expo) and Palo Alto (Shoreline), which opened in 1983 and 1987, respectively. In 1985, he presided over the day-long Live Aid benefit in Philadelphia and later personally supervised the Amnesty International tours of 1986 and 1988. In 1987, Graham presented the first rock concert in Russia at Moscow’s Izmajlovo Stadium with Santana, the Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, and Bonnie Raitt. Personal setbacks of the time included fires that destroyed his warehouse offices in 1985 and Wolfgang’s in 1987.

In March 1988, the nightclub wing of the Bill Graham organization began presenting shows at the refurbished Fillmore Auditorium once again, but the hall was closed after October 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake. Graham presented three simultaneous benefit concerts for vic-tims of the quake. He also made the final legal arrange ments for and produced the Oliver Stone movie The Doors and performed the role of Lucky Luciano in the movie Bugsym starring Warren Beatty. In 1990, he helped produce the Gathering of the Tribes concert, which inspired 1991’s Lollapalooza tour. However, on Oct. 25, 1991, Graham, companion Melissa Gold, and longtime pilot Steve Kahn were killed in a fiery helicopter crash near Vallejo, Calif.

In fitting tribute to the life and memory of Bill Graham, the Fillmore Auditorium reopened on April 27, 1994, after over $1 million in renovations. Mixing widely varying types of music, as Graham had in the early days of the Fillmore, the announced acts were American Music Club, Ry Cooder and David Lindley, and Smashing Pumpkins, with impromptu performances by Linda Perry and Joe Satriani. An effort to preserve Fillmore East failed in 1995.


Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West (1969); Fillmore: The Last Days (1972).


With Robert Greenfield, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out (N.Y., 1992).


John Glatt, Rage and Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock (Secaucus, N.J., 1993); Richard Kostelanetz, Fillmore East: Memories of Rock Theater (N.Y, 1995).

—Brock Helander

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Graham, Bill (originally, Grajonca, Wolfgang)

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