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Music

30 years on from Bill Graham’s tribute concert

@TomTaylorFO

There is much to be said about the highs and lows of the 1960s, but increasingly the tomes of text tearing at the heady zeitgeist seem more like fiction than ever before. These days, it seems incredulous to picture the CEO of Live Nation arriving at a New Year’s Eve party riding on a giant magic mushroom, but these were different times and the legendary music promoter Bill Graham embodied them more than most.

He arrived as a refugee in America at the age of ten after escaping the horrors of Nazi Germany and he quickly accustomed himself to the local culture in the Bronx. However, it was in San Francisco and the famed Bay Area scene that he found his spiritual home. Soon he reigned over the boom of West Coast rock ‘n’ roll like a numen. Presiding over the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland Ballroom he was central to the rise of bands and artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin.

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From there onwards he was the heart of bohemian culture and became a beloved shepherd of talent. He may well have been happily unhinged, but how many impresarios do you come across who are cherished by the artist themselves? In short, he was in the music business for all the right reasons and, as a result, found himself at the heart of it. Thus, when he tragically passed away in a helicopter crash in 1991, the music industry was quick to respond.

On November 3rd, 1991, a free concert called Laughter, Love and Music was held at Golden Gate Park to honour him. A whopping 300,000 people attended the free concert celebrating his life and work. However, it wasn’t merely the masses in attendance that revealed how loved he was, but also the lengths that the artists playing went to in order to show their respect. 

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are an outfit who have endured tempestuous times in the past, but they came together for a reunion especially for the show, as did Journey, indicating the respect he garnered from musicians and the unified spirit that he emanated throughout his life. Elsewhere on the bill was Santana who Graham had even played cowbell alongside at the iconic Woodstock festival in 1969. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival was also a notable performer alongside the late great comedy star Robin Williams. With Joan Baez and Jackson Browne also featuring, it was a stellar show fit for the charitable hero. 

Years later, an exhibition honouring the work of music’s most beloved music mogul celebrated the iconic event, held only a week after his death, with the following: “It was the first time so many people had turned out for a man who played no instrument, could not really sing and had never written a song. At long last, the crowd had really come for Bill.” In the modern era where business and music form a stark dichotomy Graham’s rabid enthusiasm for coupling the two is a glowing example to follow.