Bill Graham

Bill Graham Biography

Rock Music Promoter (1931–1991)
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.


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, and bands like the Grateful Dead and the Who.

Early Years

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 synagogues—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 at Auschwitz, the concentration camp where the Nazis sent his sister Ester.

Graham and his sister Tolla 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. His remaining four sisters survived the Holocaust, with two of them eventually making their way to the United States.

American Life

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.

A Life of Promotion

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. He also began booking black artists who had never before played for white audiences, including Otis Redding, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Graham also brought the Doors and Jimi Hendrix to San Francisco for the first time and staged the Who's first San Francisco show, a two-night set held at the Fillmore.

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.

Death and Legacy

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. In closing, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson sang "Amazing Grace." Three months after his death, Bill Graham was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Graham has been attributed for bringing key musicians of the 1970s—an era still considered the pinnacle of rock music today—to the public stage, and for that, he's considered a rock music legend.

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