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Bill Graham was a legendary rock concert promoter who arranged tours for bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones from the 1960s until the '90s.
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Bill Graham was born in 1931 in Berlin, Germany. Escaping the rise of the Nazis, Graham was raised in New York City. He began his promotion career in the 1960s in San Francisco, California, and was a large part of the counterculture of the era, working with such figures as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg,
"A couple of years ago, a couple of geniuses put on something called Woodstock Festival. It was a tragedy. Groups recognised that they could go into larger cattle markets, play less time and make more dollars. What they've done is to destroy the rock industry."
Bill Graham was born Wolfgang Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, on January 8, 1931. Two days later, his father died of a blood infection, so Graham's mother raised him and his sisters. After Krystillnacht, or "The Night of Breaking Glass"—an attack against Jewish homes and synagogs—occurred on November 8, 1938, Graham's mother placed him and his sister Tolla in a children's home to keep them safe. When World War II came to an end, Graham learned that his mother was gassed to death by the Nazis on a train bound for Auschwitz, the concentration camp where the Nazis sent his sister Ester.
Graham and his sister were then sent to France, where they lived until the Nazis took Paris in 1941. Fleeing with the aid of an International Red Cross worker, a 10-year-old Graham and 13-year-old Tolla made their way across France. Exhausted and weakened by malnutrition, Tolla soon developed pneumonia and had to stay behind in Lyon as Graham went on. It would be the last time the siblings saw each other.
From Lyon, Graham and others walked to Marseilles, then on to Madrid before moving to Lisbon, Casablanca and Dakar. In September 1941, Graham and other escapees crossed the Atlantic on a ship that dodged German U-boats the entire voyage.
Graham arrived in New York on September 24, 1941, suffering from malnutrition and rickets. Nine weeks later, he was taken in by a Bronx family, and attended DeWitt Clinton High School before enrolling at Brooklyn College. At age 18, Graham was drafted into the Korean War—he changed his last name to Graham at this time, since no one could pronounce Grajonca. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for his service in the war, and was granted a hardship discharge when his foster mother died.
After his discharge, Graham was essentially directionless, and repeatedly hitchhiked back and forth, from the East Coast to California. At one point, he decided to become an actor and studied with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg. After landing a couple of small roles, he went to California and became the business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a cutting-edge radical theater company. The Troupe was shut down for an allegedly obscene performance, and Graham staged a successful party on November 6, 1965, to raise funds for their legal defense. Among those appearing were members of Jefferson Airplane and poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg.
With the success of the benefit under his belt, Graham began producing and promoting shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco. He fought seemingly endless battles with neighborhood figures who were against his activities, and managed to put on shows featuring unique mixes of talent such as Lenny Bruce opening for the Mothers of Invention, plays by LeRoi Jones headlined by The Byrds, and a reading by poets Andrei Voznesensky and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at a Jefferson Airplane show.
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