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Bill Graham
Nationality: 
american (b. germany)
Gender: 
Male
Birth Date: 
1931
Birth Place: 
Berlin
Death Date: 
1991
Death Place: 
Vallejo, Calif.
Concert promoter Bill Graham rose to prominence through his presentation of rock and roll concerts in the late 1960s in San Francisco and New York City, and became one of the leading musical impresarios in America. Born Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin in 1931, his parents were Russian Jews. His father died in a construction accident two days after he was born. In 1939 Wolodia was sent to Paris as part of an exchange of Jewish children for German children in France. After the German invasion of France, he and other Jewish children were sent to locations outside Paris, then walked from Lyon to Marseilles and eventually got to Lisbon, where Wolodia embarked for Ellis Island in 1941. He was taken in by foster parents living in the Bronx, attended local schools and in 1949 graduated from high school and officially changed his name to William Graham. Drafted into the Army in 1950, Graham won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart while serving in Korea despite being disciplined for misbehavior. After earning a degree in business administration from City College of New York and failing to establish an acting career, Graham moved to San Francisco in 1963. He left a successful position as the regional manager for the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company with his secretary and girlfriend Bonnie MacLean (b. 1939) to become the business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical comedy group. After provoking the arrest of company members for obscenity at an outdoor performance, Graham organized a wildly-successful benefit for the Troupe’s legal expenses on November 6, 1965, aided by a hippie commune calling itself the Family Dog that had experience in producing concerts. A band called the Jefferson Airplane and others packed the Troupe’s loft at Howard and Fifth Streets. Graham organized two more successful benefits for the Mime Troupe at the Fillmore Auditorium, which he had sublet, with the last including a band that had just changed its name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead. Having discovered his calling, Graham next worked with the author and LSD advocate Ken Kesey (1935-2001) to create the three-day Trips Festival in late January, 1966, promoted with an eye-catching poster (Grushkin 2.42) by artist Wes Wilson (b. 1937). Two weeks later Graham put on weekend concerts at the Fillmore with the Jefferson Airplane, with a poster (BG 1) by Peter Bailey. Concert promoter Chet Helms (1942-2005), now part of the Family Dog, entered into a partnership with Graham to stage concerts at the Fillmore. The first concert with the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company was very profitable. Wes Wilson designed the advertising poster (FD 1). The partnership of Helms and Graham lasted only a few months; Helms went on to present concerts at the Avalon Ballroom under the Family Dog name. Wilson was Graham’s principal poster artist for over a year. Although Graham worried that the convoluted “psychedelic” lettering could not be read, he gave Wilson and his other poster designers great artistic freedom. Wilson designed 56 very popular posters for Graham during 1966 and 1967, then quit after a dispute over the division of large profits Graham made from poster sales. In addition to her administrative duties, Bonnie MacLean took over as his poster designer after Wilson quit, creating 31 posters, primarily in 1967 (the year she married Graham; they divorced in 1975). Then other artists took over, including Lee Conklin (b. 1941), Rick Griffin (1944-1991), Alton Kelley (1940-2008), and David Singer (b. 1941). In all Graham commissioned nearly 300 posters for concerts from 1966 to 1971, with eye-catching designs, colorful “psychedelic” styles and distorted lettering. Graham expanded his operation by opening “Fillmore East” in New York City and moving from the Fillmore Auditorium to the larger Carousel Ballroom (renamed “Fillmore West”) in 1968. He also produced shows in San Francisco’s Winterland Arena. Following changes in the rock concert business, Graham closed both Fillmore East and Fillmore West in mid-1971, claiming he was retiring from the music business. In fact he continued to promote concerts at the Winterland Arena and organized tours during the 1970s the Rolling Stones, George Harrison (1943-2001) and Bob Dylan (b. 1941), among others. Although posters were commissioned for these ventures, they were not in the psychedelic style of the earlier posters. After 1978 Graham promoted concerts in sports stadiums and other large venues and built a very-successful merchandising business. He organized notable benefit concerts, including the 1975 SNACK concert in San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium featuring Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead to benefit the San Francisco public schools’ after-school sports programs, the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium to benefit famine relief, and the Amnesty International tours in 1986 and 1988. He died in 1991 in a helicopter crash near Vallejo, Calif. (TNB 12/2015). Selected bibliography: Glatt, John. Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group, 1993. Graham, Bill and Robert Greenfield. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. With a new preface by Pete Townshend. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2004. Grushkin, Paul. The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987

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