Bill Graham was the most interesting man in the world during his time as rock and roll’s number one impresario. Born in Berlin as the Second World War began to escalate, Graham was the only member of his family that was able to flee to the United States and escape the atrocities of the Holocaust during the war, which would claim his mother’s life. Landing in foster care in The Bronx, Graham changed his name and his accent before eventually earning the Purple Heart as a part of the United States Army serving in the Korean War, all before he became famous as a concert promoter. The fact that he doesn’t have his own biopic by now is a ludicrous failure of both the mainstream Hollywood system and the more abstract world of independent cinema to recognise the best story in rock history.
Eventually, Graham landed in San Francisco and was taken by the nascent hippie scene burgeoning throughout the city. As a former host of backroom poker games in the Catskills Mountains, Graham’s speciality was in bringing organisation and class to scenes and situations that needed an adult to help make sense of chaos. Mid-1960s San Francisco contained a large number of creative young artists, but very few individuals who knew how to stage large scale concerts or events. Graham found a niche and began renting out the Fillmore Auditorium for shows in 1966.
Over the next few years, Graham expanded his Fillmore empire to east and west locations in New York City and a new San Francisco location at the former Carousel Ballroom (the original Fillmore shuttered in 1968). Throughout the peace and love scene of the psychedelic ’60s, Graham had a tough as nails presence that wasn’t to be messed with. Although passionate in his love for music and gregarious to just about anyone who crossed his path, Graham was known for shrew business dealings and for hiring imposing figures in his venues, from bouncers to technicians. Graham excelled at hiring reliable and loyal employees who could allegedly acquire drugs, socialise with clientele, and deal with the general public if they were overstepping their bounds.
By the turn of the ’70s, Graham had closed his Fillmore venues and instead focused on large scale touring. Some of the biggest names in music, including Bob Dylan, The Who, and Led Zeppelin, were all shepherded throughout some of their biggest shows by way of Graham’s direction. The moniker ‘Bill Graham Presents’ became a distinctive prefix to some of the biggest festivals of the 1970s and ’80s, including the US Festival. Upon his untimely death in 1991 due to a helicopter crash, Graham was the most influential figure in live music and one of the music industry’s most powerful figures.
As the man who oversaw the most significant growth of American rock music during the mid-to-late 1960s, Graham has an impressive resume for bringing in both local talent and transplants from across the country to stage massive gatherings. Today, we’re looking at six of the biggest bands that have Graham to thank for their success, and their major transitions from small scale acts to massive music stars. Here are some of the biggest artists who have Bill Graham to thank for their careers.
Six artists you wouldn’t know without Bill Graham:
1. The Grateful Dead
Far and away the act most heavily associated with Graham, The Grateful Dead were in transition by the time Graham came across them. Playing as the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, the likes of which were occasionally under Graham’s purview, the Dead were beginning to expand towards the outer reaches of psychedelic rock and move past their initial jug band/blues standards. Graham was taken by the group’s early take on extended jams, and a fast friendship formed.
Graham’s San Francisco Fillmore venues were the home base for The Dead during their most creatively futile period of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Their careers often ran parallel to each other, and if the Dead were on one of their endless tours, chances are they were being promoted by Graham. Upon Graham’s death, Garcia described their relationship thusly: “Bill was our power guy, he’s the guy that made rock n’ roll into an art-form. He loved dickering with agents and managers, that’s what was fun for him. Bill himself was larger than life and an amazing guy.”
2. The Jefferson Airplane
Bill Graham first rented out what would be his final legendary venue, San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, for a concert that he knew would exceed the modest expanse of the Fillmore: The Jefferson Airplane. Although most closely associated with the Dead, Graham forged a similarly simpatico relationship with the Airplane during the start of the psychedelic scene.
Graham served as the Airplane’s manager starting in 1967, often giving them headlining performances at his venues. Graham helped the band get their first record contract with RCA Victor in 1965, and he also helped keep the band afloat as they integrated their new singer, Grace Slick, into the group. Ultimately Slick would be the one to fire Graham as the band’s manager, but the band continued to perform at Graham’s venues throughout their career.
3. Janis Joplin
Although rival promotor Chet Holmes was the manager of Joplin’s first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Graham was instrumental in Joplin’s transition from band singer to solo artist. Graham prominently promoted a September 1968 concert at Fillmore West as the last Big Brother show featuring Joplin as the lead singer, even though the band had already booked a fall tour for later in the year. The promotion highlighted already-extant tensions within the group, and Joplin soon departed.
“Graham understands musicians, and that’s really important to musicians,” Joplin explained. Joplin would continue to get promotion from Graham, and her 1970 death greatly affected Graham’s view that the industry was changing, being partially responsible for the closure of his Fillmore venues. It wouldn’t be long before Graham would take up a new home at the Winterland Ballroom in 1971.
4. The Allman Brothers Band
Although they were gestating throughout the southern United States while Graham was conversing with the hippies of San Francisco, the Allman Brothers Band made a key ally in Graham when they opened for Blood, Sweat, and Tears during a show Fillmore West show in late 1969. The Allman Bros soon became the in-house opening band for the Fillmore venues on both sides of the country, and as their profile rose through their intense southern fried jams, they began to grow beyond that of an opening act.
When the group arrived at the Fillmore East for two nights in March of 1971, they were billed supporting Texas bluesman Johnny Winters. However, it wasn’t long before the Allman’s took over as the headliners. Their legendary sets on those two nights became the source of their most acclaimed recording, named after Graham’s NYC venue, At Fillmore East. The live album propelled the Allman Brothers Band into the realms of commercial and critical success, and it was at least partially thanks to Graham’s tireless promotional push on the band’s behalf.
5. The Band
Much like the Allman Brothers, The Band had already established themselves by the time they came into Graham’s orbit. Having toured with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan throughout the ’60s, The Band had influential supporters within the New York music scene by the time they released their first album, 1968’s Music From Big Pink.
But when the group were set to make their live debut, they decided to begin at the Winterland Ballroom under the promotion of Graham. As was often the case, Graham made a positive impression on the band, and especially on guitarist Robbie Robertson. When Robertson decided the band should retire from touring, he tapped Graham to pull off one of the biggest send offs in music history at the Winterland, a concert that eventually became The Last Waltz.
As (predominant white) psychedelic bands began to proliferate around his concert venues, Graham took notice of a young Mexican-American guitarist by the name of Carlos Santana. When rival promoter Chet Holmes advised Santana to keep his day job as a dish washer, Graham took it upon himself to help Santana get his new eponymous band a record deal, managing the group and instigating their involvement in the Woodstock music festival.
“He really served people really well by giving people more than entertainment, so we’re all very grateful to Bill Graham for your contribution to the arts, and we’ll see you there when we get there,” Carlos Santana said in tribute to Graham. His ability to control the often-psychedelically inclined Santana, along with all of the other trippy bands he oversaw, illustrated Graham unparalleled ability to control chaos. As he put it: “I always felt that someone had to relate to reality. That was me.”