It is commonplace nowadays for promoters, particularly those of the EDM persuasion, to be better known than the artists on their line-ups. Half a century ago, legendary promoter Bill Graham inadvertently started this trend.
With his concerts, the notoriously cranky Graham is largely responsible for making San Francisco the hub of the ‘60s counterculture movement. These events not only defined their time, but the course of rock & roll. Now, Graham’s storied life and career are chronicled at the Skirball Cultural Center with Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, the first exhibition of its kind.
The comprehensive exhibit, which features items from Graham’s two sons’ collections, explores his life professionally and personally. Starting with his birth in Germany in 1931, the exhibit follows Graham (born Wolfgang Grajonca) in Nazi-evading moves from his home in Berlin to Paris to the Bronx in 1941. These early years are brought to life through family photos, postcards, personal items and historical images. Filmed interviews with childhood friend Ralph Moratz add an emotionally charged component to the story.
The next 10 years of Graham’s life are depicted through heartwarming teenaged photos, and a period Bronx phone book from which Graham took his Americanized name. Drafted during the Korean War, Graham in his army fatigues grins with the same face that scowled out of so many images later in his rock & roll life.
Graham came to San Francisco in the early 1960s and served as business manager to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater ensemble. After the troupe’s founder was arrested for giving an “obscene” public performance, Graham put on a benefit concert for his legal defense fund, the “S.F. Mime Troupe Appeal Party.” A copy of the handbill, dated November 6, 1965, commemorates Graham’s first-ever foray into concert promotion.
Another exhibit artifact, a 1966 dance hall permit, marks the beginning of Graham's reign at the Fillmore Auditorium. It's an item Graham biographer and key consultant to the exhibition Robert Greenfield singles out as his favorite in the collection.
“[Graham] worked so hard to get [the permit] against unbelievably strong opposition,” says Greenfield. “After a fire set by arsonists destroyed the company offices in 1985, he was encouraged to keep on doing business because the permit itself had somehow survived the blaze.”
The easily identifiable “Bill Graham Presents” concert posters, with psychedelic lettering more artistic than informational, signify both the mindset of the time and Graham’s standard-setting concert-going experiences. Included in the exhibit is a selection of era-defining posters as well as less familiar hand-drawn ones. Particularly eye-catching are signature posters created by Graham’s artist wife, Bonnie MacLean. Also included are Graham’s alternate “boxing-style” posters, which he used to promote his shows in black neighborhoods.
Many images of bands that graced the stages of “Bill Graham Presents” events are included in the exhibit. Immortalized at their height, there are performance, backstage, posed, and candid shots of rock & roll icons such as The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. Also on display are outfits, instruments and other artifacts — most notably, Janis Joplin’s impossibly tiny hippie get-up, Jerry Garcia’s famed “Wolf” guitar, and the ever-present apple barrel from the entrance of the Fillmore. Exclusive to the exhibit is a site-specific installation of the “Joshua Light Show.” Originally conceived in 1967 by Joshua White, the liquid light show served as the backdrop for many “Bill Graham Presents” productions.
Graham’s presence is tangible throughout: in photographs of him in his indecently brief cut-offs, in the wry quotes printed on the exhibit labels, in the numerous letters he received requesting tickets and his handwritten responses, in scrapbooks, and in his voice, heard at listening stations narrating the exhibit. Among the collection's most memorable images: Graham on stage with Santana at Woodstock, splayed on the ground, hidden behind an amp, holding a cowbell, the only instrument he could just about play.
Graham started with a benefit concert, and continued to help mount them throughout his career: Live Aid, A Conspiracy of Hope, Concert for Peace in Moscow, the Human Rights Now! tour. The portion of the exhibit dedicated to these benefits is what Graham’s younger son, Alex, feels best represents his father as a person.
“What was most striking about Dad was the enormity of his heart and his sense of compassion,” says Alex Graham. “He was someone for whom wealth and power meant nothing, unless they were used to combat injustice. Beneath his mercurial temper and flamboyant persona was a human being who was steadfastly loyal, kind, funny, extremely tough — yet fair, and who possessed unwavering integrity… a true mensch.”
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution runs May 7 to October 11, 2015, at the Skirball Cultural Center. More info at www.skirball.org.