The Bill Graham exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum offers more than the story of one of the nation’s great concert promoters—it is also the story of San Francisco’s music scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Graham was at the center of this scene, and if you are not familiar with his role you are in for quite a learning experience.
Bill Graham was one of those people who became a legend in his own time. What I liked so much about the exhibition is that you see Graham before he was that legend, when he was still promoting concerts with handbills and the beautiful posters that became widely associated with the San Francisco sound.
Graham was a brusque ex-New Yorker who formed a powerful bond with the laid-back Grateful Dead. Some of the best parts of the exhibition include the Grateful Dead, and the show is a must-see for all Deadheads. I talked with Bonnie Simmons of the Graham Foundation years ago to see if he had any connection to the Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin where the Dead recorded their breakthrough album, American Beauty. Unfortunately, he did not (Heider studios is discussed in my book on the Tenderloin and is included in the Tenderloin Museum).
The exhibition is also a must see for fans of 1960’s rock. The posters advertising concerts are not also incredible art, but they show an order of bands that reflect their standing at the time, not in rock history. The Dead was often not the top headliner, and unsuspecting groups like the Young Rascals (later just the Rascals) —Groovin’ was their iconic hit—were featured in the San Francisco scene.
Take a good look on the posters at the low prices of concerts featuring acts that later entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It makes one wonder why anyone missed a show in those days.
Graham was with the SF Mime Troupe in the 1960’s, before going on to open Fillmore West and Winterland. He is later shown promoting the massive Day on the Green shows in the Oakland Coliseum in the 1970’s, a transition that many rock fans thought was not for the good (and blamed Graham).
I had forgotten until seeing the exhibition how Graham sponsored so many benefit concerts. Remember the SNACK concert at Kezar Stadium in 1975? S.N.A.C.K. – Students Need Athletics, Culture, And Kicks – had Graham holding a fundraiser to make up for city budget cuts that would end all extracurricular activities in schools. Take a look at this artist lineup and ask yourself whether any promoter on earth could have put that together other than Bill Graham.
The answer for this, and so many other Graham organized benefits, is no.
Graham was also perhaps the most prominent American to publicly protest President Reagan’s disgraceful trip in 1985 to lay a wreath at Bitburg, a World War II cemetery where Nazi soldiers were buried. Graham’s mother died in the Holocaust and he was outraged by Reagan’s act. In response to his fierce opposition Graham’s South of Market offices were firebombed, with much of his memorabilia destroyed.
Bill Graham died in a helicopter accident in October 1991. Seeing this show reminded me of how much he is missed, and how he really has not been replaced. Today we have large corporate concert promoters, not an individual like Bill Graham (one of the exhibits shows him in a room with several telephones. Graham would have loved the cellphone and text message world).
The show continues to July. If you are a music or San Francisco history fan, don’t miss it.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes the experiences of the Dead and other groups at Heider Studios in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.Filed under: Arts & Entertainment