This is the second installment in a look at the life of Bill Graham, the impresario who promoted many of the biggest names in folk and rock and roll during the 1960s, and who is credited with almost single handedly developing the iconic music scene that started an era.
The natural question arises: If Bill Graham didn’t understand the music he was promoting, how did he manage to succeed in the business? Two words: determination and chutzpah. He was determined to make money, and he had the chutzpah to think he could do it.
After producing a successful fundraiser for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, by expanding the entertainment portion of the group’s political theater, and drawing larger audiences than before, Graham realized he had tapped into a need that was waiting to be developed. He leased the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco from Charles Sullivan, a black entrepreneur. Sullivan also provided Graham with the permit he had used to stage many of the big Rhythm and Blues groups of the day, including Duke Ellington and James Brown.
This, as it turned out, was Graham his big break into the music concert hall business. Of course, he would still have to get the musicians to perform, but Graham, ever resourceful, found a way. He simply asked the "kids," as he called the young people who attended and performed at the concerts, who they liked the most. Bob Weir, one of the founding members of The Grateful Dead, says in “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out,” “[Graham] was always asking us and other musicians, ‘Who should I get in here?’ And that was a good move. Because it kept everything fertile and it made San Francisco sort of the hub for a while.”
To make his business a success, Graham did everything he could to woo musicians to his theater. He badly wanted to book Otis Redding, who he described as "the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen." Graham, still a fledgling impresario, figured that the only way he would be able to land Redding would be to visit him personally in Macon, Georgia, and convince him to come west with his group, the Robert Hathaway Band. The gambit paid off.
Once Redding was at the Fillmore, Graham continued to go the extra mile to keep the singer happy. Here’s one example I found particularly telling.
One evening the famed singer, known for many hits, including his iconic “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay,” happened to mention that he would like a 7-Up, with ice, certainly a modest request in light of the outlandish requests stars are reportedly known to make, and it would not have been difficult to fulfill if it hadn’t been for one thing: the Fillmore’s ice machine had broken down. Undismayed, Graham used this to his advantage. He dashed to the neighborhood market and brought back the ice and soda. The fledgling promoter of musical groups, someone who was also successful at self-promotion, wanted Redding to know to what lengths he had gone, so as he neared the singer's dressing room he began panting, to emphasize his efforts. Here’s the scenario as Graham recounted it in the book.
"What's the matter?” Otis asked, seeing Graham’s out-of-breath condition.
"Nothing. I had to … we … never mind.”
"Hey,” he [Redding] said. “What happened?”
"Well,” I said, still trying to catch my breath. “It's no big thing. I … the ice machine broke. I had to run down the street to get you the ice. Hey, no big deal …"
Needless to say, Graham's calculated charade elicited the desired effect, and Redding was duly impressed.
Graham went the extra mile in everything he did, including the filming of “The Last Waltz.”
Remember the sprucing up of the Winterland’s auditorium that was not even seen in Martin Scorcese’s documentary, and the borrowing of the chandelier? Graham went the extra mile because he knew what he wanted, and he could be exacting and cantankerous, sometimes displaying histrionic fireworks, in order to get what he wanted.
In addition to his determination and chutzpah, Graham also brought something else to the burgeoning counterculture music scene, of which the Fillmore played a huge part. He provided a rock-solid sense of direction that seemed to be lacking with the younger audiences and musicians who thought it groovy to live from moment to moment, without rules or restrictions, or seeming to be concerned about income.
Perhaps Graham acquired this rock-solid determination from trying to survive the holocaust and its aftermath. American flower-power children, emerging from the prosperous, optimistic Fifties, had never experienced the privations and uncertainties Graham had experienced living through a world war. The counterculture generation may have been ripe for experimentation and newness in whatever form it took, ready to forsake money for ideology, but Graham had a more basic, traditional, down-to-earth set of priorities.
Actor Peter Coyote, once a member of the Mime Troupe and the anarchic Diggers, says in “Bill Graham Presents” that he appreciated Graham’s contributions and saw the empresario’s money-making orientation, anathema to the counterculture world view, within context. “Bill never pretended to be anything else but what he really was. … he was always this guy ... who walked out of Auschwitz… He said, ‘I’m a capitalist. I want to make money.’ … I have a lot of respect for that.”
In 1966, shortly after opening the Fillmore at its original location on Fillmore and Geary, Graham was making $4,000-$5,000 a night, drawing around 2,500 people per concert. Despite the fact that the Fillmore was, as Graham describes it, in a bad neighborhood – “... like 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem” in New York City – he would stuff the cash in an Army duffle bag, sling it over his shoulder, and ride home on a scooter in the wee hours of the morning.
But after 2 ½ years of this, Graham eventually felt the need to move to a safer neighborhood. He was tired, as he said, of having to battle not only the Hells Angels, who would hang around backstage and want to see the show for free, but also having to deal with the tense race relations building on the streets, especially following Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
And so, when another opportunity presented itself, Graham took it and leased the Carousel Ballroom on the second floor of a building at Market and Van Ness. Originally housing a car dealership, Graham turned the refurbished ballroom into an auditorium that could hold 2,800 people. He closed the original Fillmore with performances by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, and It’s a Beautiful Day, and opened the newly christened venue “Fillmore West” with performances by the Butterfield Blues Band and Ten Years After.
In March’s column, Part III, the final installment, Bobson will discuss Graham’s continued rise to prominence up to the point where the entertainment world he had created caused him to burn out in more ways than one.