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Arts & Entertainment

Life of Bill Graham on display at the Skirball

Concert promoter Bill Graham … Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986
Photo by Ken Friedman
Concert promoter Bill Graham … Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986 Photo by Ken Friedman
Photo by Ken Friedman
Concert promoter Bill Graham … Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986
Photo by Ken Friedman
Jimi Hendrix performs at the Fillmore Auditorium. February 1, 1968
Baron Wolman
Concert promoter Bill Graham … Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986
Photo by Ken Friedman
Bill Graham motions from backstage as Tina Turner and Mick Jagger perform at Live Aid. John F. Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia, PA, July 13, 1985.
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith; © Lynn Goldsmith.
Concert promoter Bill Graham … Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986
Photo by Ken Friedman
Little Richard at the Fillmore West, San Francisco, October 16–19, 1969
Baron Wolman
Concert promoter Bill Graham … Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986
Photo by Ken Friedman
Bill Graham as "Father Time" atop a Golden Gate Bridge float on New Year's Eve Oakland Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA, December 31, 1987
Courtesy of Ken Friedman

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Bill Graham had a tremendous impact on 20th century American music. He wasn't a musician, singer or composer;  he put on concerts.

At venues like the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York, the impresario had a profound effect on some of rock and roll's biggest legends. 

He also had a profound effect on me... Graham was my god-father. 

My father, Kip Cohen, was the house manager at the Fillmore East and a dear friend of Bill's. 

I had always heard crazy stories about Bill. Amazing ones about his generosity - he once gave my parents a bag filled with cash as they boarded a plane on a trip to India. I heard terrifying stories about his legendary temper. 

My favorite Bill Graham story was one that happened just a few months before he died. He came to my mother's 50th birthday party and the two of us sat together. The Persian Gulf war had just started and Bill was deeply troubled by it. He said he didn't support the war, and yet, he was worried that the troops weren't getting the support they needed.

At a Greek restaurant in Sherman Oaks, he whipped out a pen and started sketching out ideas with me on a paper napkin. He wanted to plan a benefit concert to support the troops. Brainstorming with him was one of the most riveting experiences of my young adulthood. 

I was a sophomore in college at the time with no clue about what I wanted to do with my life. But that night, it became crystal clear to me. I wanted to work with Bill and do what he did - putting on concerts. 

A few months later, I got the call that he had been killed in a helicopter crash. 

I have a wonderful job now as host of Take Two. But I can't help but wonder what would have happened had Bill survived and I had the chance to live out my dream of working with him. 

Over the years, I've learned a lot about Bill Graham's life and work. But it wasn't until I had a sneak peak at the Skirball Cultural Center's new exhibition that I had a chance to learn about his earliest years as a refugee from Nazi Germany and how those years might have affected his work as a concert promoter. 

Early life

Bill Graham was born on January 8th, 1931 in Berlin, the youngest of six children. 

His father died just two days after he was born and his mother struggled to keep the family afloat. She put Bill and his younger sister into a type of orphanage. The children would spend week days there and then weekends with their families.

Skirball curator Erin Clancey says family troubles went from bad to worse in the ensuing years, as the Nazi Party rose to power. Graham's mother ultimately decided Germany was no longer safe for her only son. "She put him on a kinder transport with other children from the orphanage," Clancey explains. They went to Paris for what they thought would be a two-week vacation. She adds "The family knew, however, that they were not likely to see their children again." 

Graham's mother was eventually killed - gassed on a train headed to Auschwitz. Bill wound up at a French chateau with another young refugee named Ralph Moratz, who says they felt safe there, but they often went hungry.

Moratz's voice appears in the exhibition, describing how he and a young Bill Graham used to sneak into local apple orchards to steal food for the fellow orphans. "This was one of our really enjoyable times, when Bill and I would have to go out, skitter through the lanes, duck through the German soldiers," Moratz recalls, "it was a big game."

Life in the United States

Eventually it no longer remained safe for these young Jewish children to stay in Europe. Bill and Ralph were given a choice - they could head to Israel or the U.S. They chose the latter.

Ralph Moratz says it was a long and difficult journey which ended in New York. "The most amazing thing was when we went by the Statue of Liberty. We had heard so much about it, so we gave it magic powers. We said 'Now we're really safe.'" 

Bill Graham went on to defend his new homeland in the Korean War. When he returned, he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with himself, so he spent some time hitchhiking between the two coasts. 

He finally settled in San Francisco in the early 1960s, just as the Beat generation was starting to evolve into the hippy counter-cultural movement. 

Graham took a job as the manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe - a political theater group known for their free shows in local parks. "The San Francisco parks department didn't exactly appreciate the performances they were doing, calling them obscene and vulgar and not fit for families" says Erin Clancey.  One performance was visited by the police and the founder of the mime troupe, Ronnie Davis, was arrested for performing in the park without a permit.

So, Graham organized an appeal party to raise money for Davis' defense. He booked bands like Jefferson Airplane and poet Lawrence Ferhlinghetti. "He didn't know it but this would be a turning point for him," says Erin Clancey. 

Graham went on to organize two more appeal parties for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. 

The second one was held at the Filmmore Auditorium.

Graham saw a business opportunity and started organizing performances there for profit.

In the past, The Fillmore had catered mostly to African American audiences with jazz and R&B artists. But when Bill Graham started booking shows there, he brought in musicians with a much more psychedelic sound.

Despite the large draw of Graham's rock shows, the promoter never abandoned the scene that had once dominated the Fillmore. "Bill was really committed to putting on an eclectic mix of acts in his club," says Erin Clancey. "He wanted his audiences to have a really well-rounded experience and expose them to different forms of music." 

Advertising these shows, were beautiful, psychedelic posters featuring the art work of some of the era's most notable artists. For example, one poster on display was created for a concert featuring Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Martha and the Vandellas. It features a drawing of a naked woman with long flowing hair, the bands' names spelled out along wandering lines in flowing, bubbly letters. Just below it, is another poster for the exact same show... but it couldn't look more different. Just one image - a photograph of Martha and the Vandellas.

Clancy says Graham put the first poster in the areas where the hippies lived and the second poster in the African-American neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Graham's strategy worked. The Fillmore auditorium quickly became THE place to see and be seen.

In an interview which can be heard in the exhibition, Graham explains his success as a concert promoter was a direct result of failed aspirations to become an actor. "If I can't be an artist," he explains, "I'd rather be what I am and be able to have the opportunity to do what I do, for the simple reason that what a great privilege and challenge it is to have the hopefully positive power to be able to affect and influence people." 

From San Francisco to New York

Following the success of the Filmmore in San Francisco, Bill Graham opened a sister venue in New York City in March of 1968. It was a movie palace, a theater, with the proscenium stage and assigned seats. 

Erin Clancy says Graham tirelessly traveled between the two venues making sure everything was just right. "It wasn't just about putting the bands in front of the crowd and letting them do their thing," she says. "He had a great respect for the audience and he had an insistence that everyone working for him did too." 

Graham came to be known for epic concerts featuring the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Allman Brothers. 

Appearing behind the bands was often a psychedelic light show, a miniature version of which has been recreated at the Skirball.

When concertgoers arrived they were greeted with a barrel of free apples - perhaps a nod to the pilfered fruit he once shared with his fellow orphans back in France.

A recreated version of that apple barrel is on display at the Skirball. There is also the actual life-sized butterfly costume Bill Graham donned one New Year's Eve.

Erin Clancey explains that Graham would come out on the stroke of midnight in crazy outfits. "A butterfly, a chicken... he was Father Time," she says. "He rode in on these magnificent floats - a scale model of the Golden Gate Bridge, a magic mushroom, all sorts of things." 

But by the summer of 1971, it was all over. Citing changes in the music industry and financial challenges, Bill Graham decided to close both venues. 

Yet Graham didn't stay away from the concert industry for long. He went on to produce outdoor events and a number of benefit concerts raising money for everything from Amnesty International to after school programs in San Francisco.

Coordinating  such events was no small feat. Bill Graham had a legendary temper and was known for lashing out during his concerts. 

Activist and entertainer Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, recalls the U.S. festival which took place in Southern California in the early 1980s. "The Kinks were due on stage but were stalling for a more favorable time slot," he says. "Bill simply and elegantly picked up their manager's Mercedes with a forklift and held it over the lake until the band wisely took the stage." 

He was also known for being friendly  "He would always watch your show,"  says musician Huey Lewis,  "and he always had one or two ideas for the show that he would give me. In retrospect, they were very valuable." 

In October of 1991, Graham had traveled to Concord, California to see his band, Huey Lewis and the News, perform. The promoter wanted to ask them to play in a benefit concert for victims of a massive wildfire which had recently hit the hillsides of nearby Oakland and Berkeley. Graham had traveled by helicopter and the weather that night was very rough. 

"The helicopter pilot was flying very low to try to get a better sight line and the helicopter crashed into a utility tower carrying 115,000 volts," says Clancey. "The helicopter exploded killing all three passengers."

Bill Graham was 60 years old at the time of his death. A few days later, a memorial service was held at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco.

The rabbi there at the time was Robert Kirschner. He's now the museum director at the Skirball. Kirschner says some have wondered why the Skirball is dedicating an entire retrospective to a rock and roll concert promoter. "Usually it would be an artist, or something," he says. "But the promotions WERE his art!"  

Kirschner says Graham turned these kinds of performances into communal experiences that not only inspired but defined a generation. "I'm one of them," he adds, "so I feel a special connection with that."

Bill Graham and The Rock and Roll Revolution runs at the Skirball Cultural Center through October.