Remembering Bill Graham

by Seth Rogovoy

(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass., July 31, 1997) -- A concert promoter is typically a faceless businessman working behind the scenes as an intermediary between performer and audience. As such, he is the unlikely subject of a drama. But Bill Graham, who founded the legendary Fillmore theaters in San Francisco and New York -- and in the process revolutionized the way rock music was presented to audiences -- was no ordinary promoter.

More than just a singular force in the music business, Graham was a larger-than-life figure -- a 20th-century enigma -- which is what led playwright and Graham biographer Robert Greenfield to write "Bill Graham Presents." The one-man show, starring Ron Silver as Bill Graham and directed by Ethan Silverman, is being presented as a work-in-progress at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre tonight (July 31) through Saturday.

"Bill was a one-man show," said Greenfield in a recent phone interview, explaining what moved him to bring his subject and late friend to life on the stage. "He was a great storyteller. He was an actor. Everything about Bill was extreme," said Greenfield. "He was so alive, and that's the point of the play. There was something about being with him. It was not boring. He had the same charisma as many of the rock stars he worked with. He had the juice. He could turn on rooms just by walking into them. He was a powerful being."

The BTF workshop production is the first ever for "Bill Graham Presents," which is also the title of Greenfield's oral biography of Graham. The play, which is based on the book and Greenfield's personal experiences of Graham, includes music and "explores the nature of Bill's own happiness" or lack of such.

As much as Graham accomplished professionally -- which was considerable, starting out as he did a penniless war orphan and winding up a multi-millionaire, all by the dint of a career he improvised practically out of thin air -- Greenfield says that there was a tragic side to Graham.

"I saw someone who had a lot of money and yet was not happy," said Greenfield, the author of "STP: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones," "The Spiritual Supermarket," "Haymon's Crowd" and "Temple," which won the 1983 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

When Graham died, said Greenfield, "He was still searching and going through incredible personal dramas. In part it was no doubt because of the incredibly traumatic childhood." The Polish-born Graham's father died the year he was born, and his mother and one of his sisters perished in the Holocaust, a fate which the young Graham escaped by literally walking across Europe.

"He had this incredible work ethic, and an incredible need to do good, to create, to take rock and roll as a force for social change," said Greenfield. "And you can really see since his death this doesn't happen any more. Bill was possessed. He was the only guy who had the smarts, the know-how and the sensibility. No one has replaced him in rock and roll."

Graham's dramatic story begins with his fateful march across Europe ahead of the Nazis and ends with his death in a helicopter crash in 1991 at age 60. In between it includes stints as a waiter in the Catskills, as a denizen of Latin dance halls in New York, and as an actor studying the Method in New York with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg.

His career as a promoter ranged from putting on shows for a few hundred hippies in the original Fillmore Auditorium to staging the Band's "Last Waltz" farewell concert to presenting the first superstar acts on stadium tours to being called on as an unofficial -- and at times reluctant -- adviser to the promoters of massive festivals including Woodstock, Monterey and Altamont.

Along the way, Graham almost singlehandedly revolutionized the business of concert promotion. His immeasurable influence is felt throughout the rock music industry extending far beyond the technicalities of concert promotion to include molding the fundamental parameters of the relationships between artists and audiences.

Graham was midwife to the psychedelic San Francisco scene, nurturing such groundbreaking outfits as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. As the gatekeeper of two of only a handful of rock ballrooms in the nation in the late-'60s and early-'70s, he played key roles in supporting such bands as the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, The Band, Bob Dylan, the J. Geils Band, the Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones.

Graham also pioneered mixed-race and mixed-genre bills, putting blues and jazz artists including Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Miles Davis on stage before groups like Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

"He wasn't afraid of mixing it up," said Mort Cooperman, a local concert promoter who opened his own New York entertainment venue, the Lone Star Cafe, a few years after Graham closed down the Fillmore East.

"The shows he did at the Fillmore opened up a big audience for the blues, country elements, urban folk artists, even people like Allen Ginsberg," said Cooperman. "There was a whole culture around the thing. It wasn't just music -- it was art, light shows, a multi-dimensional kind of thing. There hasn't been anyone like him since."

Acting as the conscience of a music that claimed to be a force for social and political change, Graham was a prime mover behind the superstar benefits of the '80s, including SNACK, Live Aid, the Conspiracy of Hope 1986 and Amnesty International 1989.

Graham is perhaps best known as the man who professionalized the business of presenting rock shows. "The reason it's so proper that there's going to be a play about him is that Bill brought the rules, order and concept of theater to rock and roll," said Greenfield. "He brought great lighting, great sound, he brought shows that started on time, he made artists do encores, he made artists SHOW UP for shows. Bill brought a professionalism to rock 'n' roll that hadn't been there before."

"What he also did -- and rock would not be where it is today with him - - he made it safe to be in his theaters. Bill cared that you could see, that you could hear, that you could get in, you could get out, you bought a ticket, you had a seat. You were treated like a human being in Bill's house, because that's what we was concerned about. He wanted to be treated like a human being in the world." None of this was guaranteed before Graham, and sadly, some of these practices have since fallen by the wayside.

More than any of these individual accomplishments, however, Graham was a transcendent figure in the rock business and in the popular culture of his time. Partly a result of his own considerable ego -- he irked many an artist with his insistence on getting top billing on the marquee, hence the name of Greenfield's play -- and partly the result of his considerable charisma, Graham became a presence of extraordinary cultural significance.

"I really want people to experience Bill," said Greenfield about his goals for the play, "to get a sense of what it was like to be in the eye of this hurricane with this incredible human being."


"Bill Graham Presents" is at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, tonight through Saturday at 8:30, with a Saturday matinee at 2. A benefit for the BTF, tickets to the workshop performance can be ordered by calling the box office at 298-5536 between 10 and 5.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 31, 1997. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.]

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