Few names are as synonymous with live music as Bill Graham. He was a significant contributor to the US music scene from the 60s through the 90s. And his influence is still around today.
From San Francisco to New York City, Graham boosted the careers of musical groups, great and small. Many of those bands went on to enjoy a lifetime of success.
We’ll take a trip down memory lane to discover how one man with a passion changed live music forever.
Let’s hit it!
Who Was Bill Graham?
Born Wulf Wolodi Grajonca on January 8, 1931, in Berlin, Germany, his early life was anything but easy. Both of his parents were Jewish lower middle-class Russians who emigrated to Germany in the 1920s, before the rise of Nazism. They had six children, and Wulf was the youngest. Sadly, the father died just two days before the birth of his only son.
The children’s mother, Frieda, placed young Wolfgang, as the family called him, and her youngest daughter in a Berlin orphanage. A few years later, in 1941, Wulf, and 1,000 other Jewish children, were sent to New York City to escape Hitler’s deadly reign. Wulf was on his own in America. His sister died en route to the US, and his mother was murdered in Auschwitz.
The ten-year-old faced taunting from other kids for being an immigrant and for his German accent. Over time, he worked on developing a New York accent and eventually changed his name to Bill Graham to appear more American.
Graham graduated high school and earned a business degree from the City College of New York. In 1951, the Army drafted him to fight in the Korean War. Once he returned to the States, Bill worked as a waiter and front-of-house staff for the Catskill Mountain resort. He would later say this experience was training for his future career as a promoter.
A Move in the Right Direction
In the early 1960s, Graham moved to San Francisco. There, he made all the contacts with the right people to lead him into a career in music promotion. Bill began working with Chet Helms, a counterculture legend, to perform concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium.
Starting with the radical theatrical group San Francisco Mime Troupe, Graham went on to promote numerous bands that are now legendary. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company are just a few groups Graham helped in their early days.
Bill Graham went on to start record labels, signing bands such as Elvin Bishop, Rod Stewart, and Tower of Power. He also organized several benefit concerts across the country, forging the way for future large-scale music festivals.
Another of Graham’s lasting legacies was organizing The Last Waltz at San Francisco’s Winterland in November 1976. It was one of the last concerts at the venue and featured The Band and many other legendary acts. The event is considered one of the most monumental concerts in live music history. It’s become traditional viewing on Thanksgiving for many music fans.
Once Bill Graham moved to San Francisco, he called the Bay Area home until his untimely death in 1991. He died after the helicopter he was riding in crashed into a high-voltage power line in Vallejo, California.
A week later, 300,000 people gathered in Golden Gate Park for a free concert to honor Graham. Featured acts included The Grateful Dead, John Fogerty, Robin Williams, and a reunited Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young.
Was Bill Graham a Philanthropist?
Throughout his career, Bill Graham organized and promoted several benefit concerts. In many ways, they paved the path for some of today’s larger music festivals. Let’s take a look at a few of his more well-known events.
On March 23, 1975, after only a month of planning, Bill Graham held the SNACK Sunday one-day benefit concert. The “Students Need Activities, Culture and Kicks” event helped raise funds for San Francisco area schools. At $5 per ticket to see the hottest bands at the time, the 60,000-seat Kezar Stadium sold out quickly.
Performers included The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Doobie Brothers, Joan Baez, and Santana. The concert raised over $200,000 to help local schools retain arts and athletic programs for a year. Not bad for only having a month to put this festival together!
Ten years later, Graham helped organize the Live Aid event in Philadelphia while another concert was held simultaneously in London. The event happened on July 13, 1985, and raised over $1.8 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. Besides the UK and US, additional locations, including Japan, Canada, and the Soviet Union, held concerts supporting the effort.
Bill Graham booked some great bands like Led Zeppelin, Phil Collins, Madonna, The Cars, and Tom Petty for the Philadelphia show. In addition to himself, Graham had presenters such as Chevy Chase, Bette Midler, and Jack Nicholson introduce musical acts.
Human Rights Now!
A few years later, Amnesty International’s (AI) US Executive Director asked Graham to work with him on developing this event. Bill previously worked on another AI benefit concert tour called Conspiracy of Hope. In 1988, Human Rights Now! spanned six weeks and 19 countries, including the US, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Greece, and India.
The 20-date tour benefitted AI’s work of protecting fundamental human rights worldwide. It also honored the 40th anniversary of the United Nations adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Performers in the various stops included Sting, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and Roy Orbison.
What Was Bill Graham’s Influence on the Music Scene?
Above all, Bill Graham was a businessman. He cared a lot for people and lent his talents to raising money for charitable causes. Uncle Bobo, as The Grateful Dead called him, knew how to hold everything together and run concerts like a well-oiled machine.
At a time when bands were all about freedom and bucking the system, they knew better than to disrespect Bill Graham. He had rules for musicians, such as showing up on time, doing encores, and treating their role in rock and roll seriously. Graham wanted them to have fun, but he also was adamant about being professional.
Bill ensured the production had everything needed to give the audience a peak experience. That included great lights, sound, and even posters with unique and intricate artwork. Before Graham came along, concerts consisted of basic lighting and not much besides the performers doing their thing.
Graham also helped Woodstock in some ways, though he didn’t have a direct role. He offered up some of his staff and technical crew and secured acts, including Santana.
How Bill Graham Propelled the Careers of Major Artists
Graham moved to San Francisco at a pivotal time in music history. We imagine if he had stayed on the East Coast, he would have eventually done something similar, but it’s hard to say. The heyday of 60s music in the US centered around the Bay Area. So Bill being there helped boost the careers of many bands who lived and played in the region.
The Fillmore Auditorium was an important venue for groups like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and The Steve Miller Band. In addition, Graham also invited non-rock musicians such as Miles Davis, B.B. King, and Aretha Franklin to perform there. His unique approach to concert promotion was instrumental in giving many performers the boost they needed.
In the case of Janis Joplin, Graham helped the singer move from a band performer to a solo artist. Joplin once said, “Graham understands musicians, and that’s really important to musicians.” He seemed to know what they needed, even before they did.
Another group that had Graham to thank for propelling their career was The Allman Brothers Band. They already had a good following in the South. But after Bill added them as the in-house opening band for Fillmore West and East, their popularity across the country increased.
A Man of Many Talents
It’s hard to think what live music experiences would be like today had Bill Graham never left his mark. He helped improve the visual and auditory experiences for concertgoers and gave many bands the opportunity they needed to thrive. And Graham’s way of organizing so many successful large-scale events paved the way for future music festivals.
Who’s your favorite band that Bill Graham promoted? Let us know in the comments below!