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Bill Graham – 20 Years Dead

October 25, 2011

September 1982, Glen Helen Regional Park, California, USA --- Concert Promoter Bill Graham --- Image by © Neal Preston/CORBIS

No… not Billy Graham the preacher man. I’m talking about one of the great rock promoters of my generation. A former street mime with The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Graham embraced rock and roll and brought the greatest bands in history to the masses. Paris has its Moulin Rouge – the summer of love had its Fillmore.

Graham was born Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin, 1931, and given the nickname Wolfgang by his family. When the Nazis came to power Graham’s mother recognized the peril to Jews in the new Germany and placed him and his sister both in an orphanage where they were soon spirited away to France. His mother died at Auschwitz.

Sometime shortly after the war Bill Graham ended up in New York and enrolled at City College where he earned a degree in business.

Graham was drafted into the US Army in 1951 and served in the Korean War. He received the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. After Korea he took a job as a waiter/maître d’ in Catskill Mountain resorts in upstate New York. Graham moved to San Francisco in the early sixties to be close to his sister Rita.

Graham ended up managing the mime troupe in the mid sixties and began to notice the fever of local youth and lack of music venues. He opened the original Fillmore, named for its original location at the intersection of Fillmore Street and Geary Boulevard, it lies on the boundary of the Western Addition and the Pacific Heights neighborhoods.

On February 4, 5 & 6, 1966, Jefferson Airplane headlined at The Fillmore in Graham’s first non-benefit concerts, marking the true beginning of his promotion company.

Bill Graham Helicopter CrashIn the years to follow, Bill Graham built a rock and roll promotion juggernaut and in his career played host to some of the biggest names in the business —  Jefferson AirplaneBig Brother and the Holding CompanyCountry Joe and The FishLawrence FerlinghettiThe CommitteeThe FugsAllen Ginsberg, and, a particular favorite of Graham’s, The Grateful Dead. He managed the Airplane in 1967 and 1968.

Graham was killed in a helicopter crash near Vallejo, California on October 25, 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion.Graham had attended the event to discuss promoting a benefit concert for the victims of the 1991 Oakland firestorm, after a large portion of the Oakland/Berkeley Hills area burned. Once he had obtained the commitment from the News to perform, he returned to his helicopter, which crashed shortly after take-off, just 20 miles from the concert site.

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