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Bill Graham, circa 1990
Wulf Wolodia Grajonca
January 8, 1931
|Died||October 25, 1991 (aged 60)|
Near Vallejo, California, U.S.
|Other names||Uncle Bobo|
|Occupation||Businessman, musical impresario|
|Years active||1960s-1991; his death|
|Organization||Bill Graham Presents|
|Bonnie MacLean (divorced; 1 child)|
Bill Graham (born Wulf Wolodia Grajonca; January 8, 1931 - October 25, 1991) was a German-American impresario and rock concert promoter from the 1960s until his death in 1991 in a helicopter crash. On July 4, 1939 he was sent from Germany to France to escape the Nazis. At age 10 he settled in a foster home in the Bronx, New York. Graham graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and from City College with a business degree.
In the early 1960s, he moved to San Francisco, and, in 1965, began to manage the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He had teamed up with local Haight Ashbury promoter Chet Helms and Family Dog, and their network of contacts, to organize a benefit concert, then promoted several free concerts. This eventually turned into a profitable full-time career and he assembled a talented staff. Graham had a profound influence around the world, sponsoring the musical renaissance of the '60s from the epicenter, San Francisco. Chet Helms and then Bill Graham made famous the Fillmore and Winterland Arena; these turned out to be a proving grounds for rock bands and acts of the San Francisco Bay area including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, who were first managed, and in some cases developed, by Chet Helms.
Graham was born in Berlin, the youngest child and only son of lower middle-class parents, Frieda (née Sass) and Jacob "Yankel" Grajonca, who had emigrated from Russia before the rise of Nazism. His father died two days after his son's birth.
Graham was nicknamed "Wolfgang" by his family early in life. Due to the increasing peril to Jews in Germany, Graham's mother placed her son and her youngest daughter, Tanya "Tolla", in a Berlin orphanage, which sent them to France in a pre-Holocaust exchange of Jewish children for Christian orphans. Graham's older sisters Sonja and Ester stayed behind with their mother. After the fall of France, Graham was among a group of Jewish orphans spirited out of France, some of whom finally reached the USA. But a majority, including Tolla Grajonca, did not survive the difficult journey. He was one of the One Thousand Children (OTC), those mainly Jewish children who managed to flee Hitler and Europe, and come directly to North America, but whose parents were forced to stay behind. Nearly all these OTC parents were killed by the Reich. Graham's mother died at Auschwitz. Graham had five sisters, Rita, Evelyn, Sonia, Ester and Tolla, the elder four of whom survived the Holocaust. Rita and Ester moved to the United States and were close to Graham in his later life. Evelyn and Sonia escaped the Holocaust, first to Shanghai, and later, after the war, to Europe.
Once in the United States, Graham was placed in a foster home in The Bronx in New York City. After being taunted as an immigrant and being called a Nazi because of his German-accented English, Graham worked on his accent, eventually being able to speak in a perfect New York accent. He changed his name to sound more "American." (He found "Graham" in the phone book--it was the closest he could find to his birth surname, "Grajonca". According to Graham, both "Bill" and "Graham" were meaningless to him.) Graham graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and then obtained a business degree from City College. He was later quoted as describing his training as that of an "efficiency expert".
Graham was drafted into the United States Army in 1951, and served in the Korean War, where he was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Upon his return to the States he worked as a waiter/maître d' in Catskill Mountain resorts in upstate New York during their heyday. He was quoted saying that his experience as a maître d' and with the poker games he hosted behind the scenes was good training for his eventual career as a promoter. Tito Puente, who played some of these resorts, went on record saying that Graham was avid to learn Spanish from him, but only cared about the curse words.
Graham moved from New York to San Francisco in the early 1960s to be closer to his sister Rita. He was invited to attend a free concert in Golden Gate Park, produced by Chet Helms and the Diggers, where he made contact with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater group. After Mime Troupe leader Ronnie Davis was arrested on obscenity charges during an outdoor performance, Graham organized a benefit concert to cover the troupe's legal fees. The concert was a success and Graham saw a business opportunity. Bill Graham began promoting more concerts with Chet and backing Chet Helms and Family Dog projects, which provided a vital function of the 1960s, promoting concerts which provided a social meeting place to network, where many ideologies were given a forum, sometimes even on stage, such as peace movements, civil rights, farm workers and others. Most of his shows were performed at rented venues, and Graham saw a need for more permanent locations of his own. Charles Sullivan was a mid-20th-century entrepreneur and businessman in San Francisco who owned the master lease on the Fillmore Auditorium.
Graham approached Sullivan to put on the Second Mime Troupe appeals concert at the Fillmore Auditorium on December 10, 1965, using Sullivan's dance hall permit for the show. Graham later secured a contract from Sullivan for the open dates at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966. Graham credits Sullivan with giving him his break in the music concert hall business. Charles Sullivan was found murdered on August 2, 1966 in San Francisco. The murder remains unsolved.
The Fillmore trademark and franchise has defined music promotion in the United States for the last 50 years. From 2003-13 auxiliary writers of the times surrounding the 1960s, and Graham family lawsuits, tell the narrative of the Fillmore phenomena and how the black community there was disenfranchised. The best way to set the historic record straight concerning Charles Sullivan and Bill Graham is to review what Graham left in his own words. Historically the first time Graham mentioned Charles Sullivan, in print, is this article from 1988, "The Historic Fillmore's New Tradition by Keith Moerer"
Bill Graham--and anyone who's even attended a show at San Francisco Fillmore--owes a big debt to Charles Sullivan..."If Mr. Sullivan, Charles, hadn't stood by me and allowed me to use his permit I wouldn't be sitting here."
Although Graham acknowledged Sullivan's part he historically has never revealed how he got the lease to the Fillmore Auditorium and how and when he trademarked the Fillmore brand, which by all historical accounts belonged to Sullivan. In a handbill from Graham's first show at the Fillmore Auditorium, "The Mime Troupe is holding another appeal party Friday night, December 10th, at the Fillmore Auditorium", Bill Graham gives a general impression of the Fillmore neighborhood.
The Fillmore Auditorium was located on Fillmore and Geary which was like 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem...In there, Charles Sullivan, a black businessman, had booked a lot of the best R&B acts...Charles had put on James Brown and Duke Ellington. At the Fillmore, Bobby Bland and the Temptations...I met Charles Sullivan by appointment the second time I saw the ballroom...We needed a dance permit but I didn't have one. Of course he had one because he operated the place. So he allowed us to use his permit and didn't charge me for it.
Mime Troupe leader Ronnie Davis states that "Graham... gets very excited about the success of the Fillmore Auditorium Show. He gets a contract with the black guy who owned the Fillmore. He nails it. Closed." On pages 150-156 of his autobiography Graham outlined his battles with City Hall in getting a dance hall permit. By schmoozing with merchants and having criminologists and sociologists from U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Cruz giving merit to the shows Graham managed to obtain a second permit hearing, but was again denied. He reported that Sullivan came to him sometime in March or April and announced he had to pull his dance hall permit. The morning of the next day when Graham is returning to move out of his office in the Fillmore Auditorium, Sullivan meets him on the steps. Graham claimed Sullivan poured out his life story concluding with a pledge of support to Graham to beat City Hall. Graham added, "He was the guy, Charles. He was it. I don't know if I could have ever found another place. Why would I have even tried? That was the place."
Graham was denied by the Board of Permit Appeals who refused to overrule the first denial. Bill then states "Then on April 21, 1966, a Thursday, the Chronicle ran an editorial, 'The Fillmore Auditorium Case'...[I]t was a big turning point for me. In more ways than one"; he secured his permit. He later reported "A few months later, Charles Sullivan got himself killed. He had a bad habit of always carrying a roll of money with him. He was proud of his work and proud of the fact that he earned a good living and always carried a roll. They jumped him and stabbed him to death. I went to his funeral in Colma, California. It was small, mostly family. Had that not happened, I think I would have done anything Charles wanted. Just out of gratitude."
After Graham's death on October 25, 1991 the description of his funeral procession states:
Escorted by motorcycle police, more long black limousines than had ever before been seen at a private funeral in the city of San Francisco formed a phalanx for the procession to the cemetery. Bill was to be buried in Colma, the same small town south of San Francisco filled with graveyards where so many years before Bill himself had gone to the funeral of Charles Sullivan, the black man who stood up for him when the Fillmore Auditorium was on the line.
Charles Sullivan was found shot dead at 1:45am on August 2, 1966, at 5th and Bluxome Streets, San Francisco (South of Market industrial area near the train station). Sullivan had just returned from Los Angeles where he had presented a weekend concert starring soul singer James Brown. The police were undetermined whether it was suicide or homicide. Sullivan was laid to rest on August 8, 1966, according to the Sun Reporter, which reported that "Last respects were paid Charles Sullivan Monday, Aug. 8, when hundreds crowded into Jones Memorial Methodist Church, 1975 Post St. from 11:30 a.m. to view Sullivan for the last time. An enormous crowd had gathered by 1 p.m. to hear the eulogy for a friend." The funeral announcement is accompanied by photographs of the actual funeral covering two pages in which police are stopping traffic to assist the motorcade to the Cemetery in Colma.
Of note in the articles surrounding Sullivan's murder an interesting fact is pointed out in The Sun Reporter. "He took over the Fillmore Auditorium at Geary and Fillmore Sts. and began to present different artists in dances and concerts. Some of the greatest names in the entertainment world, like Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Ray Charles and numerous others, have been presented all up and down the Pacific Coast by Sullivan. He always signed these artists for presentations not only in San Francisco, but in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland and Seattle." According to the historical record Sullivan also named the Fillmore Auditorium.
Graham's struggle to get his dance hall permit in 1966 was described in an article in Billboard Magazine, July 11, 1966. San Francisco music critic Ralph Gleason, in defense of Graham's Fillmore Auditorium scene, wrote that Graham got a three-year lease for the Fillmore Auditorium from Charles Sullivan and was still struggling to procure his dance hall permit. A fact never publicly revealed by Graham. Charles Sullivan's last show at the Fillmore Auditorium came a week before his murder, it was on July 26, 1966, The Temptations Dance and Show. Graham must have gotten his permit in mid July 1966 confirming his possession of the Fillmore brand. When and how did Bill Graham take possession of the Fillmore Auditorium lease? The answer would come in 2004. Politics Observations & Arguments (1966-2004), by Hendrik Hertzberg. Penguin Press: New York (2004) contains an article, "The San Francisco Sound, New music, new subculture", at the end of which it is stated, "-Unpublished file for Newsweek, October 28, 1966". This articles contains the only published account where Bill Graham reports how he got the Fillmore Auditorium. In the beginning Hertzberg recounts familiar territory with the Mime Troupe, reducing the Fillmore Auditorium to a run-down ballroom in SF's biggest negro ghetto. After the success of the Fillmore Auditorium Mime Troupe shows Graham parts with the Troupe, "He went back to the Fillmore and found that eleven other promoters had already put in bids for it. Graham got forty-one prominent citizens to write letters to the auditorium's owner, a haberdasher named Harry Shifs, and Shifs gave him a three-year lease at five hundred dollars a month ... [T]he hippie community ... has turned out to be something the man from Montgomery Street can point to with pride, in a left-handed way, and say 'these are our boys'", stated Jerry Garcia.
One of the early concerts Graham sponsored, with Chet Helms hired to promote it, featured the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The concert was an overwhelming success and Graham saw an opportunity with the band. Early the next morning, Graham's secretary called the band's manager, Albert Grossman, and obtained exclusive rights to promote them. Shortly thereafter, Chet Helms arrived at Graham's office, asking how Graham could have cut him out of the deal. Graham pointed out that Helms would not have known about it unless he had tried to do the same thing to Graham. He advised Helms to "get up early" in the future. Graham produced shows attracting elements of America's now legendary 1960s counterculture such as the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the improv group The Committee, The Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, and a particular favorite of Graham's, the Grateful Dead. He was the manager of the Jefferson Airplane during 1967 and 1968. His staff's amount of resourcefulness, success, popularity, and personal contacts with artists and fans alike was one reason Graham became the top rock concert promoter in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Graham owned Fillmore Records, which was in operation from 1969 to 1976. Some of those who signed with Graham included Rod Stewart, Elvin Bishop, and Cold Blood, although of these it seems only Bishop actually issued albums on the Fillmore label.Tower of Power was signed to Bill Graham's San Francisco Records and their first album, East Bay Grease, was recorded in 1970.
By 1971, Graham citing financial reasons and changes he saw as unwelcome in the music industry, closed the Fillmore East and West, claiming a need to "find [himself]". The movie Fillmore and the album Fillmore: The Last Days document the closing of the Fillmore West. Graham later returned to promoting. He began organizing concerts at smaller venues, like the Berkeley Community Theatre on the campus of Berkeley High School. He then reopened the Winterland Arena (San Francisco), along with the Fillmore West and promoted shows at the Cow Palace Arena in Daly City and other venues.
In 1973 he promoted the largest outdoor concert at Watkins Glen, New York with The Band, Grateful Dead, and The Allman Brothers Band. Over 600,000 paying ticket-holders were in attendance. He continued promoting stadium-sized concerts at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco with Led Zeppelin in 1973 and 1977 and started a series of outdoor stadium concerts at the Oakland Coliseum each billed as Day on the Green in 1973 until 1992. These concerts featured billings such as the Grateful Dead and The Who on October 9, 1976, and the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan in 1987.
His first large-scale outdoor benefit concert, at Kezar Stadium, on Sunday, March 23, 1975, "SF SNACK", was organized to replace funds for after-school programs canceled by the San Francisco Unified School District, with performances by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, members of The Band and Grateful Dead,Jefferson Starship, Mimi Fariña, Joan Baez, Santana, Tower of Power, Jerry Garcia & Friends, The Doobie Brothers, Eddie Palmieri & His Orchestra, The Miracles, Graham Central Station, and appearing : Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Rosie Casals, Werner Erhard, Cedric Hardman, Willie Mays, Jesse Owens, Gene Washington, Cecil Williams
Graham as Bill Graham Presents booked the 1982 US Festival, funded by Steve Wozniak as Unuson. In the mid-1980s, in conjunction with the city of Mountain View, California, and Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Wozniak, he masterminded the creation of the Shoreline Amphitheatre, which became the premier venue for outdoor concerts in Silicon Valley, complementing his booking of the East Bay Concord Pavilion. Throughout his career, Graham promoted benefit concerts. He went on to set the standard for well-produced large-scale rock concerts, such as the U.S. portion of Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 13, 1985, as well as the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope and 1988 Human Rights Now! tours for Amnesty International.
Graham purchased comedy club The Punch Line and The Old Waldorf on Battery Street in San Francisco from local promoter Jeffrey Pollack, with whom he remained close friends for the rest of his life, then Wolfgang's on Columbus Ave in San Francisco.
Graham's later near monopoly business practices went as far as contracts with the University of California Regents to control on-campus entertainment venues, thus preventing ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) and other student organizations from promoting their own rock concerts in the 1980s. In the 1980s, he teamed up with BASS Tickets which tended to drive small ticket-distribution companies out of business in the Bay Area, creating a de facto monopoly. After the smaller operations failed, the remaining one, Ticketmaster (formerly BASS), raised prices to unprecedented levels. Its only opposition came from a few bands, notably Pearl Jam, which protested that the company's high ticketing fees were unfair to music fans. Such practices were targeted by the California Senate in S.B. 815.
Graham was recognized as an expert promoter who genuinely cared about both the artists and the attendees at his concerts. He was the first to ensure that medical personnel were on site for large shows and he was both a contributor and supporter of the St. Mark's Free Clinic in New York and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, He often used these clinics as medical support at events. He enjoyed putting together groups onstage from different ethnic backgrounds, many of whom were ignored by other promoters. He had an eye for pleasing his audience, while making an effort to educate them in styles of music they would otherwise not have been exposed to. Graham was credited with assisting the early careers of artists like Santana and Eddie Money.
Graham was instrumental in commissioning and marketing psychedelic concert posters by designers such as Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin. Bill Sagan (Former CEO of EBP) of Minnetonka, Minnesota bought the Bill Graham Presents archives and has organized hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of merchandise and video/audio recordings of concerts collected by Graham. Sagan is now selling some of the collection at Wolfgang's Vault, a reference to Graham's childhood nickname.
He was married to and divorced from Bonnie MacLean, in the 1960s and they had one child, David. Graham was also survived by another son, Alex, a stepson, Thomas Sult, and three sisters, Rita Rosen, Esther Chichinsky and Sonia Svobl.
Graham's status as a Holocaust survivor came into play in the mid-1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. When Graham learned that Reagan intended to lay a wreath at Bitburg World War II cemetery where SS soldiers were also buried, he organized protests against the act. During the same month that Reagan visited the cemetery, Graham's office was firebombed by Neo-Nazis. Graham was in France at the time, meeting with Bob Geldof to organize the first Live Aid concert. When he was informed of the fire via telephone he responded by asking immediately, "Was anybody hurt?" It was only after he was told that everyone was okay that he asked, "Is anything left?" Graham eventually led an effort to build a large Menorah which is lit during every Hanukkah in downtown San Francisco as part of the holiday celebrations of a diverse city.
Graham had a lifelong dream to be a character actor. He appeared in Apocalypse Now in a small role as a promoter. In 1990, he was cast as Charles "Lucky" Luciano in the film Bugsy. During one scene, he is shown in a Latin dance number, a style of dancing Graham had embraced as a teenager in New York. He also appears as a promoter in the 1991 Oliver Stone film, The Doors, which he also co-produced. He had a small part in Gardens of Stone as Don Brubaker, a hippie anti-war protester.
Graham was killed in a helicopter crash west of Vallejo, California on October 25, 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion. Graham had attended the event to discuss promoting a benefit concert for the victims of the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm. Once he had obtained a commitment from Huey Lewis to perform, he returned to his helicopter. Flying in severe weather, with rain and gusty winds, the aircraft flew off course and too low over the tidal marshland north of San Pablo Bay. The Bell Jet Ranger flew directly into a 223-foot (68-meter) high-voltage tower near where Highway 37, which runs between Vallejo, California and Marin County, California, crosses Sonoma Creek. The helicopter burst into flames on impact, killing Graham, pilot and advance man Steve "Killer" Kahn, and Graham's girlfriend, Melissa Gold, ex-wife of author Herbert Gold. The charred remains of the helicopter hung in the tower for more than a day.
Following his death, his company, Bill Graham Presents (BGP), was taken over by a group of employees. Graham's sons remained a core part of the new management team. The new owners sold the company to SFX Promotions, which in turn sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment. The BGP staff did not embrace the Clear Channel name, and several members of the Graham staff eventually left the company. Former BGP President/CEO Gregg Perloff and former Senior Vice President Sherry Wasserman left and started their own company, Another Planet Entertainment. Eventually Clear Channel separated itself from concert promotion and formed Live Nation, which is managed by many former Clear Channel executives.
In tribute, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium was renamed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. On November 3, 1991, a free concert called "Laughter, Love and Music" was held at Golden Gate Park to honor Graham, Gold and Kahn. An estimated 300,000 people attended to view many of the entertainment acts Graham had supported including Santana, the Grateful Dead, John Fogerty, Robin Williams, Journey (reunited), and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (reunited). The video for "I'll Get By" from Eddie Money's album Right Here was dedicated to Graham. Graham's images and poster artwork still adorn the office walls at Live Nation's new San Francisco office. With the band Hardline, Neal Schon of Journey composed a piece entitled "31-91" in 1992 in Graham's honor.
Bill Graham was inducted into the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" in 1992 in the "Non-Performer" category. Graham was inducted into the Rock Radio Hall of Fame in the "Without Whom" category in 2014.
The American 20th century went to high school at DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx. Multicultural before there was a name for it - at least a polite one - Clinton nurtured such figures as Bill Graham, James Baldwin, George Cukor, Neil Simon and Abraham Lincoln Polonsky.
In an exuberant civic celebration that served as a salve for the disaster-wreaked Bay Area, about 300,000 rock music fans flooded Golden Gate Park on Sunday for a free concert dedicated to the late impresario and local icon, Bill Graham. Many of the bands that Graham helped catapult from the city's psychedelic music scene to international stardom volunteered to play at the celebration, which invoked a 1960s ethos that in San Francisco has never entirely disappeared. The Grateful Dead, Santana, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Browne and John Fogerty all turned out for "Laughter, Love and Music," a tribute to the brass-tacks rock promoter with a social conscience who died at age 60 in a helicopter crash 10 days ago.