Graham, Bill (1931-1991)

views updated

Graham, Bill (1931-1991)

Bill Graham revolutionized the music industry by providing a forum for the explosion of artistic expression in rock and roll during the 1960s. A teetotaling prime mover of the psychedelic movement, Graham used his shrewd business acumen to present music to the world, making it profitable and self-sustaining. In the process, Graham drew attention to this brilliant period of cultural revolution and focused its creative energy into a performance ethic that has become the standard for live stage presentation.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca January 8, 1931, in Berlin, Graham was the only son in a large Russian-Jewish family. He was sent away to school to escape the Hitler Youth movement, and later, when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Bill and his younger sister were transported to France as deportation to labor camps became inevitable. Graham developed few memories of his family, having spent his formative years surrounded by air raids and bomb shelters, and as the Nazis pushed into France in 1941, Bill was separated from his ailing sister as he fled (mostly on foot) with the other refugees. Meanwhile, all but two of his sisters were deported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Like many Jewish refugees during World War II, Bill was sent to New York City. He languished in a foster home until he was adopted by Alfred and Pearl Ehrenreich in 1941, and he quickly learned English from his step-brother Roy. Though he was not a United States citizen, and was ridiculed for his heavy German accent, he became an active, integral part of his ethnic community. When World War II ended he corresponded, and later was reunited, with his surviving sisters.

In high school and in community college, Bill was a hard worker if not a stellar pupil. He worked several jobs and enjoyed the positive reinforcement of a good tip for a job well done, especially as a waiter at various resorts in the Catskills Mountains in the late 1940s. Here he also developed his passion for show business and immersed himself in theater, film, and Latin music while rubbing elbows with pretentious, high-society vacationers and the stars they came to see. In 1950, though, Graham was drafted at the onset of the Korean War. In the army, he changed his name to Bill (the American equivalent of Wolfgang) Graham (closest to G-R-A-J in the phonebook) and served until 1953, receiving a Bronze Star for valor and—at last—United States citizenship.

Discharged and aimless, he hitchhiked across America and worked with theater troupes in New York City and San Francisco, eventually meeting his future wife Bonnie as well as finding a steady job with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a politically aware artists' collective. It was when the group was arrested for performing in a public park without a permit that Graham discovered his true organizational calling.

In 1965 Graham arranged a benefit to raise bail money for the Mime Troupe and, seeing a business opportunity, set to work organizing larger and more elaborate community events. A strange synthesis was brewing in San Francisco. The rise of a counter-culture involved attempts at changing society. Performers did more than entertain; they also educated and informed, but too often without a legitimate venue in which to express themselves. Bill Graham filled this void by opening the Fillmore Auditorium, which quickly became the performance space for important cultural and musical events.

Charging nominal fees, Graham exposed the general public to local groups (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane) as well as eclectic opening bands (Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis), claiming "vegetables before dessert" were important. He also supported performance artists, acid tests, be-ins, love-ins, and any other human social experiment in need of a decent sound system. Light shows backed up the music, and shows were advertised by local artists in psychedelic poster art. The Fillmore thus became the entertainment nexus of San Francisco counterculture.

As the 1960s wore on, and more and more initiates were "turned on" to the hippie aesthetic, Graham branched out and opened auditoriums on both coasts. He made a sizable profit from the flower power phenomenon which caused some tension between him and his more obstinate cohorts from the early days. As ticket prices increased so did the pretensions of many performers, and Bill was also often regarded as one of Them—a member of the Establishment. Yet he managed to straddle the line between exploiter and exploited, earning the trust of many musicians and artists whom he helped to foster.

Inevitably, his grassroots business went national. Bill was an integral organizer of the legendary Monterey Pop Festival, and though he only advised its organizers, he made Woodstock possible as well. Due to the widening gulf between audiences and performers in the 1970s, however, Graham closed his Fillmores and began promoting tours to properly present rock and roll to the world. In the 1980s, as behemoth sports arenas seating thousands of people became the standard venue, Bill's production company, "Bill Graham Presents," pioneered the rock concert as a social statement while his t-shirt and poster business boomed. He promoted some of the first rock concerts in Eastern Europe and organized historic benefits such as Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour and the Live Aid concert which brought famine relief to Ethiopia.

On October 25, 1991, while leaving a concert he had promoted, Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter crash. A week later, Bill Graham Presents put on a massive free concert in his honor at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the site of many past benefit concerts Bill had organized. Though there was no announcement made regarding who would play, the crowd was estimated at nearly half a million. Many important groups to whom Bill had given their first break paid tribute to this capitalist who played no instrument, yet whose influence over music and public presentation forever changed popular culture and its interpretation by mass media. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

—Tony Brewer

Further Reading:

Graham, Bill, and Robert Greenfield. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. New York, Doubleday, 1992.

About this article

Graham, Bill (1931-1991)

Updated About content Print Article