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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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Graham viewed rock concerts as theatrical performances, and his musicians were equipped with the best sound and lights available. He had artists create glaring psychedelic posters for the shows, which have since become landmark collectible art, and he created the first independent ticket-distribution system by having local head shops sell tickets to his shows.
Taking his skills to the East Coast, Graham renovated an abandoned movie theater in New York City to create the Fillmore East in 1965, where he continued to stage shows with the hottest bands of the time. By 1971, however, Graham had been so enmeshed in the business that he became burned out and decided to close both Fillmores. At that time, he still had a venue called Winterland in San Francisco. His vacation from the business didn't last long, and his next move was presenting the Rolling Stones for two shows at Winterland as well as at venues in California—in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego—and Tucson, Arizona.
Graham then founded a festival in Oakland, California, where Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and the Grateful Dead, among several other well-known rock bands, played before more than 50,000 people, and staged arena rock tours by George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In 1975, Graham helped create the rock merchandising industry with his Winterland Productions, the first retailer of T-shirts that allowed musicians to receive royalties.
In 1976, Graham put on "The Last Waltz," a farewell concert by the Band and later, the title of a film about the concert directed by Martin Scorsese. In 1981, he planned and managed the Rolling Stones colossal stadium tour of the United States.
In 1985, Graham produced the American Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, raising more than $45 million to fight hunger in Africa. The following year, he put together the six-city "Conspiracy of Hope" tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Amnesty International, a concert featuring U2, the Police, Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed, among several other rockers of the time. He then arranged the "Human Rights Now!" tour, and soon after, he held a relief concert for victims of a Bay Area earthquake and gathered 60,000 people to welcome Nelson Mandela to Oakland.
On Friday, October 25, 1991, Bill Graham was flying home from a Huey Lewis and the News show in the East Bay when the helicopter he was riding in got caught in a storm, struck a power line and exploded, killing everyone on board.
A week later, nearly half a million people filled the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park for a free concert held in Graham's memory. The show featured several mainstream artists, including Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, John Fogerty, the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
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