Chad Myers photograph

A Life Like No Other

Ladies and gentleman, I present to you, the legendary Bill Graham. I personally had heard of Bill Graham numerous times, being the closet hippie I am and lover of 60's and 70's music. He was after all, for those of you not familiar with the man, the promoter and operator of the places where rock music came of age in the U.S. Namely, The Fillmore West, The Fillmore East and Winterland were all under his control during this rich period in our history both musically and c ulturally. I was born in 1976, so I experienced none of this first hand. Recently though I read a new Biography on Bill Graham titled "Bill Graham Presents" that literally blew my mind. The breadth of adventure and number of personal challenges of this man read like no one else, save maybe Forrest Gump. I recommend that anyone who loves music, and even those that don't, read this book. This is just a short article, with all info taken from this book, a synopsis of the man's life. I'm going to try to pack as much in as possible, it will be coming fast, so try to keep up.

Bill Graham, although that was not his name at the time, was born a Russian Jew in Nazi Germany. His family was smart enough in the early days to have him smuggled out early to a castle in France that served as a home to similar refugees. His mother was not so lucky, as she got gassed in the train on the way to a concentration camp and killed with numerous others. One of his sisters got out as well but was captured on a trip back into Germany to find some family. She was sent to Auschwitz and upon her arrival saw first hand the brutality of the SS. The process at these camps was to separate family members and loved ones, but when a woman was begging to be able to keep her baby the soldier threw the baby down, stomped it to death and then shot the woman. His sister did end up surviving the concentration camp, but that was the vast minority as scores did not. Bill, being only a young kid, rode with a caravan keeping ahead of the German Army as they advanced through France. They eventually made it to Great Britain and onto a boat out of Europe.

He arrived in New York City all alone, with no family and friends and unable to speak the language. He stayed in an orphanage for 6 weeks, during which potential parents would visit 2-3 times a week and take other children into their home, until a nice family finally took him into their home. He described this as the most stressful period of his life, more then during the war, as he had to put himself on display daily but for 6 weeks failed to impress anyone. From there he had a normal New York City youth, with stickball, other sports, movies and girls. Many adventures and interesting things happened during his youth and adolescent in New York, but you'll have to read the book for that.

Bill Graham, like many others in the 1950's, was drafted into the military for the Korean War. On the boat over he worked in the mess hall, and would steal food during the night for the hungry soldiers who were staying up for all night craps games and poker. Due to his food supply, Bill would run the games and would get a cut of each one, as well as make money off the food. By the time they got to Korea he had accumulated thousands of dollars, a ton of money for that time. He never actually threw the dice himself, until the last game when all the winners from the ship came together for one last game. He got talked into throwing after already winning even more money. He threw and just kept winning, until his fortune was approaching 10 grand. Everyone was involved in the betting, and he just couldn't quit, until finally his luck changed and he lost it all, every dime. Bill never wanted to be in Korea, and doing what many naive kids may have done, he volunteered for the most dangerous assignment so he would get out as soon as he could. He was one of the soldiers that would go out in 2-3 people patrols to call in bombing coordinates and give specific info about the enemy. On one of these he and his partner got into a firefight with 4 Korean soldiers. All the soldiers on both sides ran out of bullets and the Koreans attacked and engaged in hand to hand combat. In this kill or be killed situation, Bill and his fellow soldier stepped up and killed all the Koreans and survived. His mom became deathly ill shortly thereafter and after some wrangling with his superiors, Bill was released from service.

After a short time being out he found out that his sister was still alive and living in San Francisco. Back then they had agencies that would set up people to drive someone else's car across the country that didn't want to do it themselves. Bill signed up for one of these going to Los Angeles and was ecstatic to learn that it was the actor Buddy Hackett's car, who needed his golf clubs for a tournament that was happening in 3 days. Wanting to be an actor himself he was very exited to meet Mr. Hackett and drove the whole way from New York to Los Angeles straight through. When he called the agency upon his arrival, he found out he was not going to get to meet Mr. Hackett, and dejected as he was just drove the car up to San Fran instead of giving it back. Upon his arrival, his sister had already heard about the stolen car from the cops and gave Bill a tongue lashing before sending him on his way. Luckily he returned the car, and the charges were dropped. This was in the 1950's, Kerouac and the beat generation time, and Bill was also a part of this "On The Road" era in his own way. He spent about 2 years driving and hitchhiking across the U.S. numerous times from San Francisco to New York. Back and forth doing various jobs and meeting interesting people. Finally he settled in San Francisco and the really interesting part of his life began.

After working a couple different jobs Bill fell in with the Mime Troupe, a politically charged group of artists that basically was the foundation to the later hippie movement. Not being a very "hip" person himself, Bill was the organizer that kept track of the books and helped stage events. One particular live music and art event they staged in a loft was filled to the top, with a line streaming out the door all paying a cover charge that netted the group a nice chunk of money. From that moment on, Bill knew this is what he was meant to do.

He had somewhat of a falling out with the Mime Troupe, and when a lease became available at a nearby theater "The Fillmore" Bill jumped at the opportunity. He started off modestly, but slowly built it into the "must play" venue for every group of the 60's and 70's. The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and virtually every other famous band from this era all played at The Fillmore. During this time he managed Jefferson Airplane for awhile, and Janis Joplin asked him to manage her but he told her she needed someone with more time because she was becoming so famous. Bill Caught Carlos Santana sneaking through an upstairs office window with his brother to see the show because they had no money. Now Bill was notorious for his policy of everyone paying to get in, but when he heard their story he couldn't turn them away. From then on Carlos and his friends were a mainstay there, eventually sitting in with a band one night when another band canceled. He was great, and Santana became the first group to headline the Fillmore with no album out. Bill Graham basically discovered Santana. There are literally too many stories to put in this tiny article, read the book for all the details, they are spectacular. Here are a few of my favorite stories from the Fillmore.

Bill Graham was also one of the first to put the Grateful Dead on, hosting many of the early "Acid Tests". He knew people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy, who helped put on these seminal events of the "Hippie" movement. It was widely known, as Bill was a very straight guy, that the Grateful Dead wanted to dose him with acid. They tried numerous times and failed, but succeeded when they laced his seven-up soda with acid. This normal, straight guy spend the rest of the night on stage with the Grateful Dead playing a small instrument. The rest of the band, were not against it, in fact they considered him part of the band for that one night, amazing.

Another great moment has to do with "The Doors". Those of you familiar with "The Doors" have probably seen the Oliver Stone movie of the same name. During one scene Jim Morrison swirls his microphone over his head like a lasso, going further out into the crowd until finally he lets go and it hits a man right in the head. That was Bill Graham, it really happened at The Fillmore. At the next show after this happened, Jim Morrison came into Graham's office with a big package containing a tie dyed military helmet with the words "Morrison Special" on it. He gave it to Bill and advised him to wear it at the show. Bill Graham loved "The Doors", and Jim Morrison was one of his favorites because he had it all, the looks, the voice and he wrote great songs.

Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, and were almost untouchable at the time they played "The Fillmore". They had a mystique of black magic, and a manager named Peter Grant that ran things like a gangster. One of the most famous stories of Led Zeppelin, that you would see on VH1 or any other documentary, happened at "The Fillmore West". One of Bills employees caught a kid stealing some signs and took them back from him, not knowing it was Peter Grant's son. Nothing bad happened to the kid, but he was a spoiled son of the manager of the greatest rock and roll group at the time. The son pointed out the guy and Peter Grant and drummer John Bohnam beat up on him before finally the guy got away. Peter spoke to Bill, and Bill thought he calmed things down but Peter Grant still wanted to talk to the guy, he insisted. Graham tried and tried to get away from this, but finally relented after Peter Grant promised profusely that nothing would happen to the man. Graham took Grant to the Trailer, and the first thing Grant did was hit the guy right in the mouth and then throw Graham out of the trailer. Now Grant was a very large man, and very intimidating, and he tossed Bill out like nothing. They held him outside while Grant and others just beat the hell out of the guy, unmercifully, until the guy somehow got away and ran for his life. Bills men wanted retribution and some of them got guns, but Graham knew there was a better way. After signing an agreement to not press charges so Zeppelin would play that night, Bill had them arrested after they played. They eventually settled out of court but the fact remains that this sort of stuff happened all over the place at Zeppelin concerts, Graham was just the first one to stand up to them.

Many other major events from this time Bill Graham was also involved in. "The Band" put on their last concert at the Fillmore, which was recorded and put out as the film "The Band and Friends". He was at Woodstock and helped out although he wasn't directly involved. He knew Altamont was going to be a mess before it even happened so he wasn't there. He was also the first one the punk explosion came to when they came to the US, and he put on the first U.S. show of "The Sex Pistols".

He closed the Fillmore's in the 80's, but continued to be active in the music scene. He put on the U.S. half of the Live Aid concert, the biggest event both musically and philanthropically of the 1980's. He was picked to take the Rolling Stones out for their comeback tour, which was a great success. Graham loved being out with the talented musicians in the Stones, and said it was one of the best experiences of his life. He also put on concerts for Amnesty International, and the first rock-n-roll concert in Russia. He did all these causes because he felt he wanted to do something bigger then just make money.

In the early 1980's President Ronald Reagan was set to visit a graveyard in Germany that was filled with former SS soldiers, the ones who ran the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Many people were outraged by this, as was Bill Graham being that he was Jewish and his family experienced the camps first hand. He took out a full page add in a national newspaper pleading with the President not to do this. Although he got some threatening letters, he never thought anything would come of it. He happened to be in Europe at the time of Reagan's visit when he called his offices and nobody answered. When he finally got a hold of somebody he found out that his entire office building was burned to the ground, and that they knew it was intentional because the police found 2 full molotov cocktails outside, a primitive bomb of a glass of fuel with a cloth "wick". He returned home and was devastated, nothing was left. Luckily because he had good people, he had good insurance and financially he would be fine. His offices though were a veritable museum of all the music posters and memorabilia from all the great bands that had graced the halls of The Fillmore's and Winterland, and it was all gone.

Although openly it didn't really affect him, he went into a depression and had trouble sleeping. He had good people so the business moved on, but Bill had more trouble. After losing the Rolling Stones next reunion tour, after a couple years, he finally snapped out of it and became productive again. He continued through these years to promote and put on acts. One of the last concerts he put on was a "Day on the Green" show in San Francisco in 1991 featuring Soundgarden, Faith No More, Queensryche and Mettallica. He had gone though many different generations of great musicians.

On Oct. 25th of that year Bill was putting on a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion. He boarded a Helicopter with his girlfriend and pilot and went over to the concert through some rainey weather. While at the show the weather got worse, but it was still not bad enough not to fly. They boarded the Helicopter and headed off. The visibility wasn't very good and the Helicopter clipped a pole and crashed to the ground, killing all on board.

When the funeral was held ,about 2000 mourners packed the Temple Emanu-el in the Presidio Heights section of San Francisco, to pay their respects to Bill Graham. Among them were The Grateful Dead, Neal Young, Grace Slick and Bill Walton among others. Carlos Santana played a song for Bill.

The shows never stopped for his company, as his employees cited a much used quote from Bill Graham, "never cancel a show unless you hear from me personally." Nobody heard from Bill so the shows went on. They organized a free concert in the park called "Laughter, Love, and Music" to honor their fallen leader. No announcement was made of who the performers would be, but three hundred and fifty thousand to a half million people showed up that day. Jackson Browne, The Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joe Satriani, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and others all played that day. Robin Williams did his comedy routine as well.

All those people showed up that day to honor a man that played no instrument, but meant so much to the musicians and the music industry. He was "The one person who when everyone else was spinning madly in circles had always been firmly in control." His life was unbelievable to me when I read all the details in this book. All the information in this article comes from this book including the last quote in this paragraph. Despite his in your face style, people loved him. He was right in the middle of all the great events of his lifetime, from the forties to the nineties. He led a life filled with turmoil and challenges that no normal person can even imagine. He also lived the good parts of his life like noone can imagine, dealing with legendary artists on a daily basis. Bill Graham was rock-n-roll.

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