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  • January 5th, 2018

    How Bill Graham Became One of the Most Influential Music Promotors of All Time

    words by Zachary Franck

    Happy Birthday, Bill!

    Bill Graham is arguably the most iconic concert promoter in the history of live music. He is largely responsible for shaping the San Francisco music scene of the mid to late 60s, which still flourishes across America today. Who knows where the Grateful Dead would’ve ended up had it not been for Bill Graham. Not only did he help manage and promote the band, he owned both The Fillmore and Winterland Arena, two of the Dead’s most played venues. He went on to create a legacy that will last forever, and it was all a result of perseverance and dedication.

    See, Graham’s life wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, he went through more than most during the early years of his life. He was born in Berlin on January 8th, 1931 to Jewish parents that had emigrated from Russia before the rise of Nazism. His father died two days after his birth and his mother was later killed in Auschwitz. He, along with one-thousand orphans, managed to flee to the United States of America after most of Europe fell to the Nazi regime.

    He arrived in New York City and was placed in a foster home in The Bronx. During these years he gained the toughness needed to overcome any obstacles thrown his way. Graham went on to graduate high school and then obtained a business degree from City College. In 1951, he was drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War. Upon his return, he had a short stint as a waiter/maître d in Catskill Mountain resorts during the early 60’s. He saved up some money and moved to San Francisco and his journey into the music world began.

    In San Francisco, Bill Graham became friends with Charles Sullivan, a businessman that held the master lease of the Fillmore Auditorium. After Sullivan was murdered in 1966, Graham got forty-one prominent citizens to write letters to the auditorium’s owner, which resulted in him getting a three-year lease at five-hundred dollars a month. He went on to book the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane numerous times, among many others, creating a counter-culture that would be cemented in American history forever.

    “Bill always took great pride in everything he did. Whether it was The Fillmore or the Winterland, you could see him before the show, with his watches and his clipboard, making sure the chairs were right… He was a saloon keeper, he was a proprietor at the beginning – that’s what his license said, saloon keeper. He took great pride in bringing people into an environment, making them feel really great, then making sure they got safe. He was like a warrior promoter, and he really cared, he would sit up at night and dream this stuff. It wasn’t like he just went to work and punched a clock, he was driven.”
    Mickey Hart

    He started Fillmore Records, which was in operation from 1969 to 1976, which prompted him to open the Fillmore East in New York City. After a more-than solid run, he closed both venues in 1971 and spent some time away from live music. But that didn’t last for long as he eventually reopened The Fillmore and Winterland Arena in San Francisco, booking some of the most legendary shows of the decade. From theaters, he worked his way up to filling stadiums with bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, setting the standard for well-produced large-scale rock concerts – a standard that is still upheld to this day.

    “Bill was our power guy, he’s the guy that made rock n’ roll into an art-form. He loved dickering with agents and managers, that’s what was fun for him. Bill himself was larger than life and an amazing guy. I’ve just missed the friend.”
    Jerry Garcia

    The story of Bill Graham is a mesmerizing tale of the American dream. Graham set his legacy in stone by putting together a number of successful benefit concerts for a multitude of amazing organizations. He genuinely cared about artists and attendees at his concerts; he was the first big promoter to ensure that medical personnel were always on site. His philanthropy improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. His legacy will live on forever in the happiness that he brought people and the passion that he put into his work.

    “He really served people really well by giving people more than entertainment, so we’re all very grateful to Brill Graham for your contribution to the arts, and we’ll see you there when we get there. Thank you, Bill.”
    Carlos Santana

    5 Facts About Bill Graham

    In 1973, Bill Graham produced Summer Jam, the biggest outdoor concert ever. It took place in Watkins Glen, New York and was headlined by The Band, The Grateful Dead, and The Allman Brothers Band. Tickets were limited to 150,000 by organizers but more than 600,000 fans showed up.

    Bill Graham was awarded the Bronze Star of Valor and a Purple Heart for his service in the Korean War.

    In 1976, Bill Graham put together The Last Waltz with The Band at Winterland Arena. To this day, it is considered one of the most monumental concerts in the history of live music.

    Bill Graham is credited as the first big promoter to book The Grateful Dead in San Francisco at The Fillmore Auditorium on January 8th, 1966.

    In 1985, Bill Graham produced the American Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It raised more than $45 million to fight hunger in Africa.