When the offices of Bill Graham Presents burned down on May 7, 1985, the alleged arson destroyed not just a building, but the home of the legendary company born of rock impresario Bill Graham’s unequaled talent and influence as a concert promoter. More than any other figure in the music’s history, Graham shaped the tremendous success of live rock and roll as a mass consumer-driven business. The fire, it was suspected, carried a social message as it closely followed Graham’s vehement protest of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a Bitburg, West Germany, cemetery where members of the Nazi party were buried; this apparent insensitivity toward American Jews, which Graham perceived as patent anti-Semitism, told him that even though he had escaped Nazi persecution as a child, he had not escaped the bigotry that had spawned it.
Born Wolfgang Grajonza, the youngest child and only son of Russian Jewish parents, Bill Graham was born in Berlin, Germany, on January 8, 1931. His father, Jacob, a civil engineer working in a border town near Poland, died two days after his son’s birth. Frieda, Graham’s mother, managed to support her children by selling items—hats, skirts, artificial flowers—at a stand in the marketplace. The family felt the effects of Nazism only moderately between 1933—the year that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany—and 1938, when Nazi violence against Jewish citizens escalated dramatically. Graham’s mother decided that her two youngest children would be safer in a kinderheim, a kind of boarding-school nursery. Graham and his sister Tanya lived there until authorities closed the school in 1939. Frieda then realized the necessity of getting her children out of Germany; Graham and Tanya were sent to a château doubling as an orphanage, in Chaumont, France.
With the onset of World War II, the ruling Nazi Party of Germany began incarcerating and murdering European Jews by the millions. One of Graham’s sisters, Ester, returned home one morning from her forced-labor night shift at a local factory to discover that her mother had vanished. She determined much later that their mother had been killed on her way to Auschwitz, one of the most notorious of the German death camps.
When occupying German forces began to march through France in 1941, the Jewish children in the orphanage set out on an arduous journey to the United States. After traveling thousands of miles by bus, train, boat, and on foot, only 11 children survived of the 64 who had left the château together. Tanya—the only
For the Record…
Born Wolfgang Grajonza, January 8, 1931, in Berlin, Germany; died in a helicopter crash, October 25, 1991, near San Francisco, CA; became U.S. citizen, 1952; son of Jacob (a civil engineer), and Frieda Sass (sold clothing and accessories in city marketplace) Grajonza; adopted by Alfred (an insurance salesman) and Pearl Ehrenreich; married Bonnie MacLean, 1967 (divorced); children: David, Alex (with Marcia Sult), Thomas Suit-Graham (adopted stepson).
Worked variously as waiter and cab driver; actor, 1958-1963; business manager of San Francisco Mime Troupe, San Francisco, 1965; produced benefit concerts for Mime Troupe, 1965; concert producer and promoter, 1965-91; produced shows at Fillmore Auditorium, 1966-71; produced shows at Fillmore East, New York City, 1967-71, and Winterland, 1967-79. Managed major tours, 1970s and ’80s, including those of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; helped organize major concert benefits, 1980s, including Live Aid, Rock for Peace, and Amnesty International tours. Appeared in films Gardens of Stone, 1987, and Bugsy, 1992. Military service: U.S. Army; Korean War, 1950-51; awarded Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Awards: American Music Awards Merit Award, 1993.
family to whom Graham had ever been close—died of pneumonia in a hospital in Lyons, a city southeast of Paris. Graham’s sisters escaped to various parts of Europe, except Ester who, after eluding the Nazis for a time, was sent to Auschwitz, ultimately becoming one of a small number of European Jews to survive internment in the death camps.
After Graham arrived in New York City, on September 24, 1941, he and the other children were placed in foster homes. Graham was taken in by Alfred, an insurance salesman, and Pearl Ehrenreich, who had an apartment in the Bronx. Roy, Graham’s foster brother, helped him learn English and offered him some protection from neighborhood bullies who viewed the refugee child as just another German and thus, an enemy. As soon as he mastered the language, Graham became enamored of Bronx street culture. He immersed himself in street sports, including stickball and various forms of low-level gambling; he took on a series of odd jobs— mostly making newspaper and grocery deliveries—not wanting to financially burden his foster parents. Graham also spent hours watching movies in huge movie “palaces.” As he moved into his teens, he became a regular at the Apollo Theater and the Palladium, two ballrooms where big bands would play while hundreds of dancers practiced the latest steps on immense dance floors.
In 1950, Wolfgang Grajonza officially became Bill Graham and was drafted into the United States Army. Still not a citizen, he was nonetheless shipped out to join the forces fighting the Korean War. Although Graham— who would become famous for his temper—was never able to acquiesce quietly to military authority, he served honorably on the front lines for close to a year and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He returned from duty to support himself waiting tables in Brooklyn and at the large resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. He went back and forth between the country and the city, finding jobs wherever he needed them.
Between 1956 and 1958, Graham made a series of cross-country jaunts between New York City and San Francisco; again, he always managed to turn up work wherever he alighted. When he wasn’t waiting tables, he drove cabs. When he began to feel some need for a sense of direction in the late 1950s and early ’60s, however, he dedicated himself to building a career as a character actor. Acting, however, did not prove to be the proper vehicle for Graham’s ambitions.
Career focus happened upon him almost accidentally. An experimental theater group in San Francisco, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, needed a business manager. Graham took the job around 1965 and had his first taste of show business success when he organized a benefit performance to raise money for the troupe. He expected the Howard Street loft to fill with six or seven hundred people—its legal capacity—for the show featuring poetry readings by beatnik legends Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and music performed by the then-up-and-coming psychedelic rock band the Jefferson Airplane. Instead, thousands arrived for the event, standing in a line that wrapped around the block.
Graham was so astounded by the success of the first benefit that he immediately began planning a second. Already he was less interested in his nominal role as a business manager for the troupe; he was drawn primarily to the function that he would make into an art form— producing and promoting shows of cutting-edge music for large audiences. Graham described his decision to go into production in his autobiography, Bill Graham Presents: “I realized what I wanted to do. Living theater. Taking music and the newborn visual arts and making all of that available in a comfortable surrounding so it would be conducive to open expression. What I saw was that when all this truly worked, that space was magic. For me, the key element was the public. Their reaction was the payoff.”
For the second Mime Troupe benefit, on December 10, which would feature rock legend-to-be Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention, Graham secured a much larger space: the Fillmore Auditorium, at the corner of Fillmore and Geary in downtown San Francisco. It was an auspicious move; Graham would continue to lease the space for performance for the next six years, making it the cornerstone of his veritable empire of concert promotion.
By his fourth production, Graham had created the format that would become his trademark, as well as the name of his company, “Bill Graham Presents.” Every weekend at the Fillmore, beginning that February in 1966, he would put on six shows—two a night every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—each showcasing three or four bands. He quickly developed a constant clientele, rock fans who would show up every weekend no matter who was playing, and a regular coterie of bands. Some were local groups that would hold modest but important places in the history of rock—the Butterfield Blues Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Others would go on to become some of the most important names in the genre, including the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.
Business at the Fillmore grew so much by 1967 that Graham was forced to expand his format; he began producing shows six nights a week and shifted the weekend performances to an old roller-skating rink with a five-thousand-person capacity, the Winterland. At this time, Graham began working with the giants of rock’s second generation: blues shouter Janis Joplin, fiery guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and charismatic Doors frontman Jim Morrison. He also brought the British Invasion to his auditorium, beginning with rock bands like Eric Clapton’s Cream and the Who. He made some attempts to bring in the Beatles but never succeeded.
In 1967, Graham bought the old Village Theater in New York City’s Greenwich Village and christened it the Fillmore East. In no time the Fillmore East established itself as the most significant location for rock and roll on the East Coast, just as the original Fillmore, which became the Fillmore West, had in San Francisco. In Bill Graham Presents, Dee Anthony, a top band manager, described Graham in those years as both influential and democratic: “He gave every band a chance. They would open, go in the pocket, and headline. If they progressed, within a year they would have a hit album. Bill was responsible for all that.” This responsibility extended to the careers of influential bands such as Jethro Tull and Traffic.
During the height of the theaters’ financial success, in 1971, Graham decided to close both Fillmores. He explained his decision retrospectively to Michael Goldberg in a Rolling Stone interview: “Running the Fillmores had begun to take its toll. I was flying back and forth across the country. I was beginning to lose some acts to bigger places. The business of rock and roll got so big, and the managers said, ’You can make as much in one night at [Madison Square] Garden as you can in three nights at the Fillmore.”’ Graham did, however, continue to produce events at Winterland and the Berkeley Community Center.
Despite the closings, Bill Graham Presents continued to grow rapidly. Graham hired young business talent to manage different parts of the corporation. The company branched out into a number of concerns, including FM Productions, which mainly handled concert promotion, and Winterland Productions, one of the most successful rock merchandising businesses ever. In the early 1980s, the outfit expanded further to include a nightclub division, a management company, a catering division called Fillmore Fingers, and Chutspah Advertising. Freed from overseeing daily operations, Graham devoted himself to two areas: large concert tours with a single band, like the Rolling Stones, and the immense multi-performer festival benefits that became popular in the 1980s.
1969 saw the first, and still most famous, outdoor rock festival: Woodstock. Although the event has gone down in rock and roll history as an unparalleled success, most of the organizers remember it as an operational nightmare. Graham had been approached to lend his managerial talent to the festival and had resisted, anticipating that the size and scope of the event would be unmanageable. Six years later, however, he was inspired to plan a large outdoor benefit for the San Francisco public school system. It was among the first of the charity benefit concerts that came into vogue in the 1980s.
Graham played some role in almost every major rock benefit of the decade; the ARMS tour in 1982 raised money for research on multiple sclerosis; Live Aid, a few years later, brought in 2.5 million dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia; two tours, one in 1986 and another in 1987, supported the human rights organization Amnesty International; Rock for Peace in 1987, which brought the first such concert to the Soviet Union, benefited the International Peace Walk. These extravaganzas attracted the biggest names to stadiums and television screens; performers like Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton frequently donated their talents to raise money for a variety of causes.
Although Graham refused to become involved in Woodstock in 1969, he did ultimately introduce himself to the giant concert production in another context; England’s Rolling Stones were planning a tour in the U.S. and Graham knew that he wanted to be their California promoter. He did not attempt to present them in either of his auditoriums; rather, he arranged his first stadium production—a format that was still quite rare at the time—at the Oakland Coliseum, outside of San Francisco. The shows were a success—two sell-out crowds of 15,000 each—but Graham’s initial contact with the band was a failure; mutual dislike reigned. In fact, by then Graham’s often cantankerous behavior was well known. Despite the conflict, Graham remained an important promoter; the Stones even hired him when they returned to the States in 1972. That year Graham showcased them at four shows at Winterland, as well as in stadium concerts at the Forum in Los Angeles and the Long Beach Arena; he managed to be civil, but not friendly.
By 1974, Graham began taking other bands on national tours; that year alone he traveled with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, on what would be the first stadium-only itinerary. In 1981, Graham worked again with the Stones: He not only organized a very successful tour, but also managed to promote a positive relationship with Mick Jagger. After the success of this outing, the band entrusted him with their 1982 tour of Europe. The next year, Graham tackled Europe again, with Dylan and Santana.
When the Stones reunited for a tour in 1989, however, they did not hire Graham. Exhausted from overwork and fighting off depression that had been building for years, he finally had to confront his problems. He described the pain of that time in his autobiography: “During the months after I lost the Stones tour, I thought about suicide many times. For the first time in my life, it seemed like a choice. I realized I’d spent my entire life not facing up to some serious personal problems relating to my childhood. There was obviously guilt that I’d survived [the Nazi slaughter of European Jews] while others didn’t. Because of that guilt, I always had to do something. During those months, my day-to-day life was unbearable. ... I got into habits I’d never had in my life. Watching TV on a Wednesday afternoon at my house in the dark in my room. I cannot tell the agony of those months.”
This despondency prompted Graham to begin putting his emotional life back together. By the time he boarded a helicopter for a ride home in Marin County on October 25, 1991, he had achieved a measure of peace. That night, the helicopter struck an unmarked transmission tower, immediately killing all three passengers. An overwhelming outpouring of grief from the rock community—fans, musicians, businesspeople, and the press—followed the tragedy, and Graham was honored with many public statements and events. The Civic Auditorium in San Francisco was renamed for this refugee who had become an American institution. A free concert held at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to remember Graham drew close to half a million mourners and rock fans. Musician’s Mark Rowland concluded of the promoter’s passing, “More than Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or John Lennon, the death of Bill Graham . . . signaled the end of a rock ‘n’ roll era.”
Graham, Bill, and Robert Greenfield, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, Doubleday, 1992.
The Rolling Stone Interviews: The 1980s, edited by Sid Holt, St.Martin’s/Rolling Stone Press, 1989.
Boston Globe, September 25, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1992.
Detroit Free Press, January 26, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1992.
Musician, November 1992.
New York Times, October 25, 1992.
Rolling Stone, January 9, 1992; November 26, 1992.
Variety, November 4, 1991; November 9, 1992.
Washington Post, October 7, 1992.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
"Graham, Bill." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/graham-bill
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