Military Wiki
Bill Graham
Bill Graham, circa 1990.
Born Wolodia Grajonca
(1931-01-08)January 8, 1931
Berlin, Germany
Died October 25, 1991(1991-10-25) (aged 60)
Vallejo, California, U.S.
Occupation Rock promoter
Years active 1960s–1991; his death

Bill Graham (January 8, 1931 – October 25, 1991) was an American impresario and rock concert promoter from the 1960s until his death in a helicopter crash. He fled from Germany and, in 1941, from France to escape the Holocaust, and at ten settled in a foster home in the Bronx, New York. Graham graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and from City College with a business degree although he claimed he had a degree in journalism.

In early 1960's, he moved to San Francisco, and, in 1965, began to manage a theater troupe; he organized a benefit concert, then promoted several free concerts, and this eventually turned into a profitable full-time career, after he assembled a talented staff of one and a half. Bill had a profound influence around the world, sponsoring the musical renaissance of the '60s from the epicenter, San Francisco. Graham made famous the Fillmore, Winterland, and His Family Dog concert halls; these turned out to be proving grounds for rock bands and acts of the S.F. Bay Area like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Starship, Eagles, Country Joe and the Fish, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Moby Grape, Santana, Frank Zappa, Steve Miller, the Mamas and the Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Deep Purple, Taj Mahal and many more. His foresight, toughness, successes, generosity, popularity and talented staff allowed him to become the top concert promoter in rock music and a multimillionaire.

Early life[]

Graham was born Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin,[1] the youngest son of Frieda (née Sass) and Yankel Grajonca, an engineer,[2] a lower-middle-class Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia prior to the rise of Nazism.[3][4] Graham's father died two days after his son's birth.[5] Graham was given the nickname Wolfgang by his family early in his life.[6] Due to the increasing peril to Jews in Germany, Graham's mother placed her son and his younger sister in an orphanage in Berlin. The orphanage sent them to France in a pre–Holocaust exchange of Jewish children for Christian orphans. Graham's older sisters stayed behind with his mother. After the fall of France, Graham was among a group of Jewish orphans spirited out of France, some of whom finally reached America. But a majority of the children—including Graham's older sister Tolla—did not survive the difficult journey. Graham thus was one of the One Thousand Children (OTC), those mainly Jewish children who managed to flee Hitler and Europe and then come directly to America, but whose parents were forced to stay behind. Nearly all these OTC parents were killed by the Reich. Graham's mother died while imprisoned at Auschwitz. Graham had five sisters, Rita, Evelyn, Sonja, Ester and Tolla, only two of whom survived. Ester moved to the United States and was very close to Graham in his later life. His sister Rita escaped, first to Shanghai and then (after the war) to the United States.[citation needed]

Once in the United States, Graham was raised in a well-to-do foster home in The Bronx in New York City. After being taunted as an immigrant and being called a Nazi because of his German accented English, Graham first worked on his accent, eventually being able to speak in a perfect New York accent, and also changed his name to be more "American." (He found "Graham" in the phonebook; it was closest to his real surname "Grajonca." According to Graham, both "Bill" and "Graham" were meaningless to him, except to his foster parents maybe.) Graham graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and then obtained a journalism degree from City College.[7][8] He was later quoted as describing his training as that of an "efficiency expertdisambiguation needed".

Graham was drafted into the United States Army in 1951 and served in the Korean War, where he was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Upon his return to the States he worked as a waiter/maître d' in Catskill Mountain resorts in upstate New York during their heyday. He was later quoted as saying his experience as a maître d' and with the poker games he hosted behind the scenes were good training for his eventual career as a promoter. Tito Puente, who played some of these resorts, went on record once saying that Graham was avid to learn Spanish from him, but only cared about the curse words.[9] It was during the 1950s that Graham became a champion mambo dancer in the mambo clubs of New York City.[10]


Graham in 1974

Graham moved from New York to San Francisco in the early 1960s to be closer to his sister, Rita. He was invited to attend a free concert in Golden Gate Park, where he made contact with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater group. He gave up a promising business career to start the RAG free newspaper. His foster parents died and left him and his foster-brother a million dollars each according to the S.F. Chronicle at the time, which he used to sponsor several civic minded causes, one example being the Mime Troupe in 1965. After Mime Troupe leader Ronnie Davis was arrested on obscenity charges during an outdoor performance, Graham organized a benefit concert to cover the troupe's legal fees. The concert was a success, and Graham saw a business opportunity. Bill sponsored several free concerts in Golden Gate park, two Jimi Hendrix concerts being the most famous. He spent most of his time writing editorials for the RAG, which was used to promote concerts by his V.P. to sponsor a renaissance of music in the 1960s, to which Bill was a major contributor.[11][12]

Graham began promoting more concerts to raise funds for the Mime Troupe and others, eventually leaving the troupe to sponsor concerts full-time with his staff: V.P.of Marketing "little" Michael Ludwig did the conception, booking, signing of artists and promotion; Bill's President secretary did the paperwork and organizing of events; and Bill was responsible for selection of artistic posters (which he had a flair for) and more importantly was one of the few deep pockets in the Bay Area who would fund the renaissance through musical concerts. Bill provided a vital function of the '60s, promoting concerts which provided a social meeting place to network, where many various ideologies were given a forum (sometimes on stage), from peace movements to civil rights, farm workers, and so on. Most of his shows were performed at rented venues, and Bill saw a need for more permanent locations of his own. Charles Sullivan was a mid-20th-century black entrepreneur and businessman in San Francisco who owned the master lease on the Fillmore Auditorium. Bill approached Charles to put on the Second Mime Troupe appeals concert at the Fillmore Auditorium on December 10, 1965 using Sullivan's dance hall permit for the show. Graham later secured a contract from Sullivan for the open dates at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966. Bill later opened Winterland, and Family Dog Concert Halls. Graham credits Sullivan with giving him his break in the music concert hall business. Charles Sullivan was found murdered on August 2, 1966, south of Market Street in San Francisco. To this day the murder remains unsolved.[13]

One of the early concerts Graham sponsored (with Chet Helms hired to promote) featured the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The concert was an overwhelming success and Graham saw an opportunity with the band.[14] Early the next morning, Graham's secretary called the band's manager, Albert Grossman, and obtained exclusive rights to promote them. Shortly thereafter, Chet Helms arrived at Graham's office, asking how Graham could have cut him out of the deal. Graham pointed out that Helms would not have known about it unless he had tried to do the same thing to Graham and advised him to "get up early" in the future. Later after several years of promotion Bill gave V.P. Michael Ludwig his own Concert Hall,The Family Dog. Booked and operated by Michael with his father Michael (quasi-manager of the Grateful Dead at the Family Dog Presents, Monterrey Pop Festival and Altamont Concerts) the Concert Hall was located between Balboa and Fulton on La Playa below the Cliffhouse Restaurant. Michael wanted to call it Dog, but his father thought Family Dog sounded better with Bill Graham agreeing, stating "that we were all family" thus Family Dog Presents was born in 1965, which was to have many successful shows at various venues before Bill located and opened the Family Dog Concert Hall next to the Great Hwy. Later Chet Helms was hired against both Michael's wish's to promote at the Family Dog Concert Hall, but rarely showed up and was released later when the concert hall closed, which more or less ended Chet's music career/promotion days (especially after legal problems from Bill over the Family Dog provenance). Michael took over again and booked/promoted Bills concerts at the Fillmore, Winterland and Family Dog Presents shows with his previous use of the grassroots movement through Bills free Rag newspaper placing popular psychedelic posters inside to promote each upcoming concert. Passing them out by hand, he hitchhiked throughout Berkeley and S.F. (although many despised Bill editorials most would take it for the poster) doing away with costly radio and newspaper promotions that had previously been used. Michael's formula for a successful concert was simple: that the band should play their hits or hit first, then the rest of the songs sounded better. Many fans complaining they had to suffer through all the bad songs till they finally played the one or two hits they had been waiting for. This formula was very popular with the audience and was strongly encouraged backstage at all of Bill's shows by his V.P. personally,part of his legacy in the industry that later promoters have yet to equal. Strangely,Bill rarely showed up to any of his Bill Graham Presents/Family Dog Presents Concerts that he sponsored during the 1960s,even though he was often encouraged too.[citation needed]

A charismatic but often difficult personality, Graham produced shows attracting elements of America's now legendary counterculture of the time such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and The Fish, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The Committee, The Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, and, a particular favorite of Grahams, The Grateful Dead. He was the manager of Jefferson Airplane during 1967 and 1968. His staffs amount of resourcefulness, success, popularity,and personal contacts with artists and fans alike was one reason Bill became the top concert promoter in rock music in the S.F Bay Area. Michael started when he was only 5 years old in 1965 ending in 1971,his only payment for the historic work produced was to be number one on the backstage list to every Bill Graham concert he promoted. Bill's secretary was his only actual paid employee, which wasn't very much. They were responsible for managing Bill's famous venues Fillmore West, Winterland,and the Family Dog(all in San Francisco) with his foster-brother starting the Fillmore East (in New York City), where like S.F. the best and up-and-coming acts would come to play.In the early days Bill prefer'd to work on his editorial's in the RAG(he was a journalism major in college),and left the concerts to his staff as long as they made money, which they did. Many countless benevolent volunteers and specialists must be remembered contributed to Bills early success, laying a foundation for his later work. Bill Graham also owned a record label, Fillmore Records, which was in operation from 1969 to circa 1976. Some of the artists who signed with Graham were Rod Stewart, Elvin Bishop and Cold Blood,[15] although of these it seems only Bishop actually issued albums on the Fillmore label.

In New York City, he formed a booking agency with his foster-brother called The Millard Agency, which organized the booking of bands for the Filmore East. Because the music venue was the Fillmore east, it seemed obvious to call the booking agency Millard. (Millard Fillmore was the thirteenth president of the United States.) His main music venues were booked by his staff in the Bay Area. They opened certain weekday nights for less well known bands, like the Grateful Dead and Santana to get exposure.

By 1971, Bill citing financial reasons closed the Family Dog, The Fillmore East and Westdisambiguation needed on both coasts, then Winterland claiming a need to "find [himself]". The movie Fillmore and the album Fillmore: The Last Days document the closing of the Fillmore West. "Little" Michael's last Bill Graham Presents/Family Dog Presents concert was the closing of Bills final concert hall Winterland,in which the Grateful Dead became infamous. This concert was the climatic symbolic end of the short 10 year renaissance of science,music,the arts,summers of love,positive vibes and good karma. Most of the hippies,musicians,and social rights leaders later fleeing S.F., contributing to a fall of S.F.'s tourism and reputation as the center for world culture. Graham retreated to a Greek island, but found the quietude disconcerting and later admitted being disappointed that no one there knew of him. Bill historic staff of one and a half went on a sabbatical of their own for a while(with his secretary last seen booking at Shoreline Amphitheater, both Michael's living on top of mount tam conferring with the Dead, behind Santana, up the street from Steve Miller, Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage). Bill later returned to promoting, first organizing concerts at smaller venues, like the Berkeley Community Theatre on the campus of Berkeley High School. He then reopened the Winterland Arena in San Francisco along with the Fillmore West and promoted shows at the Cow Palace Auditorium in Daly City and other venues.[citation needed]

Graham promoted the West-Coast leg of the legendary The Rolling Stones American Tour 1972, also known as S.T.P. Tour (for Stones Touring Party), as well as parts of the Rolling Stones 1975 and 1978 tours. He would then promote the entire Rolling Stones American Tour 1981 and Rolling Stones European Tour 1982. When the Stones returned to touring in 1989 with the Steel Wheels tour, Mick Jagger accepted the offer of Michael Cohl's The BCL Group (Ballard Cohl Labatt).[16] to buy the concert, sponsorship, merchandising, radio, television, and film rights. Steel Wheels became the most financially successful in history. Graham later discovered that Cohl had offered only slightly more money. Graham took Jagger's repudiation as a personal defeat, writing "Losing the Stones was like watching my favorite lover become a whore."[17]

In 1973 he promoted the largest outdoor concert at that time at Watkins Glen, New York with Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Band. Over 600,000 paid were in attendance. He continued promoting stadium sized concerts at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco with Led Zeppelin in 1973 and started a series of stadium concerts at The Oakland Coliseum Stadium he called Day On The Green (DOG) in 1973 until 1992. Some of these concerts featured acts such as Grateful Dead and The Who in October 1976, and Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan in 1987. His first large-scale outdoor benefit concert was for the San Francisco after-school programs, called the SNACK concert and starred Bob Dylan, with Neil Young, various members of the Grateful Dead and members of The Band.[11]

In the mid-1980s, in conjunction with the city of Mountain View, California, and Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Wozniak, he masterminded the creation of the Shoreline Amphitheatre, which became the premier venue for outdoor concerts in Silicon Valley. Throughout his career, Graham promoted benefit concerts.

He would go on to set the standard for well-produced large-scale rock concerts, such as the American portion of Live Aid in JFK Stadium, Philadelphia on July 13, 1985, as well as the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope and 1988 Human Rights Now! tours for Amnesty International. In addition, he presented regular bay area outdoor concerts at the Oakland Coliseum, referred to as "Days on the Green," and was known to aggressively challenge potential competition.

Graham's later near monopoly business practices went as far as contracts with the University of California Regents to control on-campus entertainment venues, thus preventing ASUC and other student organizations from promoting their own rock concerts in the 1980s. In the 1980s, he teamed up with BASS Tickets which tended to drive small ticket-distribution companies out of business in the Bay Area, creating a de facto monopoly.[citation needed] After the smaller operations failed, the remaining one, Ticketmaster (formerly BASS), raised prices to unprecedented levels. Its only opposition came from a few bands, notably Pearl Jam, who protested that the company's high ticketing fees were unfair to music fans. Such practices were targeted by the California Senate in S.B. 815.[18]

Graham was recognized as an expert promoter who genuinely cared about both the artists and the attendees at his concerts. He was the first to ensure that medical personnel were on site for large shows and was both a contributor and supporter of the St. Mark's Free Clinic in New York and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic,[19] which he often used as medical support at events.[20] He enjoyed putting together groups onstage from different ethnic backgrounds—many of whom were ignored by other promoters—and he had an eye for pleasing his audience, while making an effort to educate them in styles of music they would otherwise not have been exposed to. Graham was credited with assisting the early careers of artists like Santana, Eddie Money and Paul Collins' Beat.[11][21]

Graham was instrumental in commissioning and marketing psychedelic concert posters by designers including Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin. Bill Sagan (Former CEO of EBP) of Minnetonka, Minnesota bought the Bill Graham Presents archives and has organized hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of merchandise and video/audio recordings of concerts collected by Graham. Sagan is now selling some of the collection at Wolfgang's Vault referring to Graham's childhood nickname.[22]

Personal life[]

He was married and divorced, to Bonnie McLean, in the 1960s and they had one child, David. He was also survived by another son, Alex; a stepson, Thomas Sult, and three sisters, Rita Rosen, Esther Chichinsky and Sonia Svobl. He also had several long-term relationships.[23]

Graham's status as a Holocaust survivor came into play in the mid-1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. When Graham learned that Reagan intended to lay a wreath at the Bitburg World War II Cemetery in Germany, where SS soldiers were also buried, he organized protests against the act. During the same month that Reagan visited the cemetery, Graham's office was firebombed by Neo-Nazis. Graham, in France at the time, meeting with Bob Geldof to organize the first Live Aid concert, was informed of the fire via telephone. He responded as follows: "Was anybody hurt?" It was only after he was told that everyone was okay, he asked, "Is anything left?"[citation needed]

Graham had a lifelong dream to become a character actor, professing a great admiration for Edward G. Robinson. He appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, as a promoter. In 1990, director Barry Levinson and actor Warren Beatty provided an opportunity for Graham to take a more substantive role by casting him as Charles "Lucky" Luciano in the film Bugsy.[24] During one scene, Graham is shown in a Latin dance number, a style of dancing Graham had embraced as a teenager in New York. He also appears as a promoter in the 1991 Oliver Stone film, The Doors.[25] He also had a small part in Coppola's 1987 Gardens of Stone playing the part of Don Brubaker as a hippie war protester at a garden party during the Vietnam War who gets into an argument with James Caan's character and is beaten up.[26]


Graham was killed in a helicopter crash[27] near Vallejo, California on October 25, 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion.[7] Graham had attended the event to discuss promoting a benefit concert for the victims of the 1991 Oakland firestorm. Once he had obtained the commitment from Huey Lewis to perform, he returned to his helicopter. Flying in severe weather, with rain and gusty winds, the aircraft flew off course and too low to the ground over the tidal marshland north of San Pablo Bay. The Bell Jet Ranger flew directly into a 223-foot high-voltage tower along Hwy 37, which runs between Vallejo, California and Marin County, California. The helicopter burst into flames on impact, killing Graham, pilot Steve Kahn and Graham's girlfriend, Melissa Gold, ex-wife of author Herbert Gold. The charred remains of the helicopter hung grotesquely in the tower for more than a day.[28]

Post Death[]

Following his death, his company, Bill Graham Presents, was taken over by a group of employees. Graham's sons remained a core part of the new management team. The new owners sold the company to SFX Promotions, which in turn sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment.[29] The BGP staff did not embrace the Clear Channel name, and several members of the Graham staff eventually left the company, including former President/CEO Gregg Perloff and former Senior Vice President Sherry Wasserman, who started their own company, Another Planet Entertainment. Eventually Clear Channel separated itself from concert promotion and formed Live Nation, which is managed by many former Clear Channel executives. Live Nation is now the world's largest concert production/promotion company and is no longer legally affiliated in any way with Clear Channel.[30]

In tribute, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium was renamed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. On November 3, 1991, a free concert called "Laughter, Love and Music" was held at Golden Gate Park to honour Graham, Gold and Kahn.[31] An estimated 300,000 people attended to view many of the entertainment acts Graham had supported including Santana, Grateful Dead, John Fogerty, Robin Williams, Journey (reunited), and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (reunited).[32] The video for the song "I'll Get By" from Eddie Money's album Right Here was dedicated to Graham. Graham's images and poster artwork still adorn the office walls at Live Nation's new San Francisco office. With the band Hardline, Neal Schon of Journey composed a piece entitled "31–91" in Graham's honor in 1992.


A couple of years ago, a couple of geniuses put on something called Woodstock Festival. It was a tragedy. Groups recognized that they could go into larger cattle markets, play less time and make more dollars. What they've done is to destroy the rock industry.

NME – April 1971[33]

See also[]

  • Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 448 F.3d 605 (2d Cir. 2006)


  1. Glatt, John. Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock. Birch Lane Press, 1993. p. 3
  3. "Bill Graham, Lead Act at Last". October 7, 1992. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  4. "Newsbank website". May 6, 1991. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  5. "Bill Graham, Rock Impresario, Dies at 60 in Crash", New York Times obituary
  6. Graham, Bill; Greenfield, Robert. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, Delta, 1992, p. 37
  7. 7.0 7.1 Lambert, Bruce (October 27, 1991). "Bill Graham, Rock Impresario, Dies at 60 in Crash". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2008. 
  8. Kipen, David. "Flawed look at career of blacklisted director", San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2001. Accessed September 14, 2009. "The American 20th century went to high school at DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx. Multicultural before there was a name for it – at least a polite one – Clinton nurtured such figures as Bill Graham, James Baldwin, George Cukor, Neil Simon and Abraham Lincoln Polonsky."
  10. "Latin Music USA", PBS TV, broadcast 2010
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Randie Paige Lewis; Luckydog Arts and Design;;, 831-423-4239. "Bill Graham Bio". Archived from the original on June 15, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  12. "History San Francisco Mime Troupe". Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  13. "The Fillmore: Timeline". Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  14. "The Paul Butterfield Blues Band Concert". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  15. "Fillmore Records". Rock and Roll Map. Retrieved October 2, 2011. 
  16. "Satisfaction: The Life and Times of Michael Cohl". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on July 3, 2007. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  17. in book Bill Graham Presents
  18. "California Senate Bill, S.B. 815". Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  19. Randie Paige Lewis; Luckydog Arts and Design;;, 831-423-4239. "About Bill Graham Memorial Foundation". Archived from the original on June 15, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  20. "Haight Ashbury Free Clinics: RockMed". Archived from the original on June 11, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  21. Bill Graham postcards and handbills
  22. "About Wolfgang's Vault". July 3, 1973. Archived from the original on July 9, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  24. Bugsy IMDB
  25. The Doors IMDB
  26. Gardens of Stone IMDB
  27. NTSB Probable Cause report
  28. Kulczyk, David. (2009). Death In California – The Bizarre, Freakish, and Just Curious Ways People Die in the Golden State. P.141 Craven Street Books. P121 ISBN 978-1-884995-57-6
  29. "Clear Channel Music Group Splits Bill Graham Presents Into Two Entities". California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming: Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  30. Sloan, Paul (November 30, 2007). "Live Nation rocks the music industry". CNN. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  31. "Laughter, Love and Music". Archived from the original on May 25, 2008. Retrieved April 17, 2008. 
  32. "California Whirls". The Vid. Archived from the original on April 18, 2008. Retrieved April 17, 2008. 
  33. Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd. p. 225. CN 5585. 

Further reading[]

  • Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out, re-published 2004. (By Robert Greenfield and Bill Graham) ISBN 0-306-81349-1
  • Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock, 1993. (By John Glatt) ISBN 1-55972-205-3
  • "Tito Puente: When the Drums are Dreaming", 2007 (By Josephine Powell)

External links[]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).