Bill Graham Drives His Chevy to the Levee

An in-depth look at the legendary rock promoter's retirement and resurrection

Concert promoter Bill Graham poses for a portrait in 1967 in San Francisco, California. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Several months after the Fillmore East and West had been closed, Bill Graham walked through a cluttered warehouse attic several blocks from the old Fillmore West in San Francisco. Here were the stacks of old bushel baskets that once held free apples; a Geary and Fillmore street sign they took away from some kid at the door of the original Fillmore; a stack of old clothing; a discarded pile of ruined musical equipment, the balloon inflator used on New Year's Eve.

Among the reasons Graham gave for ending the Fillmore scene was that in doing his work to the best of his ability, he had deprived himself of a personal life. "At this time," he said, "I feel I can no longer refuse myself the time, the leisure and the privacy to which any man is rightfully entitled." He told the San Francisco Chronicle that "my wife and son David (age two) came back from a Mexico vacation today and that makes me very happy. The fact that they exist in my life was a factor in my decision."

The Fillmore East sign, "Thank You and Farewell," went up on June 27th, and the Fillmore West was officially closed on July 4th. Now it was sliding into fall. Bill and his wife were separated, preparing for divorce. Later, in a January interview with the Good Times, a San Francisco street weekly, he would say, "I had a good marriage, a good wife and my work became my mistress. My wife is a human being and she finally went her way and I went my way. And I paid the price of success, or one of them, which is, here I am. Stuck with my business and no family."

In the early fall perhaps these things weighed heavily on Bill's mind. Walking through the collected goods, Fillmore memorabilia, Graham looked a little like that scene you remember from a movie that might be entitled The Jim Thorpe Story. The hero, football's undisputed star, having played his last game, returns to the empty stadium in snowy twilight. He stands silent with his collar upturned against the wind as the camera dollies in for a full-face close-up. Distantly one hears the spectral sounds of cheers, touchdown cheers, louder and yet louder …

So perhaps in some corner of his mind, Bill Graham could hear the Who, the Airplane, the Dead, as he ran his hands over the collected mementoes. He smiled. "Hello, balloon inflator," he said. "Remember me?"

"'I took a sheet of paper, divided it in half, and started listing all the positives and negatives of my involvement in rock concert production. I had a list down to here of negatives. You know what I had for positive?' He took some paper and began scratching. Bill will never do something blandly if it can be done dramatically. 'There!' he said, handing it to me. The page showed a large dollar sign."  
—San Francisco Chronicle, May 3rd, 1971

* * * 

Less than five months after he had announced his "retirement from concert production," Bill Graham grossed about $250,000 from a string of Bay Area concerts that took place in less than 10 days. Even though the Fillmore West was closed, Graham presented no fewer than 22 artists in four months. He remained the city's most prolific producer. And between October 22nd and October 30th, his monopoly on concerts in San Francisco became readily apparent. Seven Graham productions in nine days included: Boz Scaggs at Winterland for two nights, Traffic at Winterland for two nights, Jeff Beck at Winterland for one night, Donovan at the Civic Auditorium and — on the same day — Grand Funk at the Oakland Coliseum.

In addition he announced that he had renewed his lease on Winterland for 1972, paying an estimated $100,000 for first refusal rights (the building may be rented by others when Graham isn't using it). The building reverts to the Ice Follies for two and a half months during the summer, thus in order to pay staff salaries, act guarantees, advertising and equipment costs, as well as recoup his original $100,000, Graham will have to promote shows nearly every weekend. And these are in addition to occasional dates at the Berkeley Community Theater across the Bay, and shows in the giant halls, the Civic Auditorium and the Oakland Coliseum.

The new production crew is composed primarily of former Fillmore staffers. Called FM Productions, it is headed by Barry Imhoff and is set up as an independent contractor. The dismissal of the permanent Fillmore staff and the move to Winterland has undoubtedly had positive financial effects for Graham companies. Under the terms of the Fillmore lease, if he couldn't book a weekend, he was out $12,000. The new Winterland sublease eliminates that kind of overhead. And perhaps most importantly, while the Fillmore West had a limited capacity of 2200, San Francisco fire laws allow 5400 bodies to crowd Winterland. Bill Graham has said it more than once: the name of the game is draw.

Graham's first production was held on November 6th, 1965, as a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which he then managed. A month later, at the suggestion of Ralph J. Gleason, he rented the Fillmore Auditorium and three years later he was making net profits (after expenses) of $6000 on a good weekend at the Fillmore West and also netting up to $15,000 at the Fillmore East. Other ballrooms sprang up. There was the Eagle in Seattle, the Kinetic Playground in Chicago, the Electric Factory in Philadelphia and the East Town in Detroit. By January of 1971, the last of these others, the Boston Tea Party in Boston, had closed.

So when Graham closed the last of his regular 52-weekend-a-year ballrooms, a number of the major dailies across the country, especially those that considered themselves voices of the "silent majority," had a field day. It was clear that all this experimentation with drugs, sex and revolution was a direct result of rock music. And it was obvious that those early San Francisco dances led right to public nudity at Woodstock, and, God help us, fucking in the bushes. And couldn't a straight unbroken line be drawn from Woodstock to murder at Altamont and a whole new horror called death by overdose? No doubt about it. And now here's the guy who says he started it all, see, saying too many musicians are nothing more than greedy, no-talent egomaniacs and the audiences are full of abusive, tin-eared punks. Yes, it was easy to understand the real meaning of the announcement of the closing of the Fillmores: the long-overdue Death of Rock.

Life magazine and the CBS Evening News didn't mention and no doubt didn't know that it wasn't the first time Graham had quit the Fillmore. Early in August of 1969 he had announced his retirement and the end of the Fillmore West. The Howard Johnson restaurant chain had bought the land the auditorium stood on and the Light Artists' Guild, representing many of the ballroom light shows, was threatening a strike.

"What they won't accept," Graham said then, "is that they are not a draw and they hate the fact that I talk in business terms." The light show artists had demanded a 50 percent pay raise. "I'm fucking sick and tired of pointing," Graham said. "I'm supposed to get up in the morning and say, 'I'm sorry, world, for being a success.' I'm sorry for making a good living? For bringing good music to this town? Apologize for what? Feel guilty about what?"

And in San Francisco the phone calls and the telegrams and the letters — nearly a thousand of them — poured in. Graham didn't quit and the light show artists didn't get their raise.

Having been through a dry run, Graham knew well how to maximize the effect his retirement always seems to have. The actual announcement, in late April of 1971, took on all the masterful effects of the standard Bill Graham show. There was a New York press conference in which a two-page single-spaced letter of resignation was handed out to reporters. It contained a seven-pronged indictment of everyone connected with the rock industry. The artists and agents wanted too much money per performance, the musical worth of the acts he was forced to book fell below his "personal expectations and demands," and the agents were packaging acts, forcing him to take a second or third act if he wanted a major headliner. The press and public cast him in the role of "Anti-Christ of the Underground," a role which "has obviously never appealed to me." Anyway, the musical sophistication of the audience had so deteriorated that it was impossible to have any respect for such tin-eared dolts. There were personal reasons: he was tired and he had deprived himself of a private life.

Once again the letters poured in. Time, Newsweek and New York Magazine ran articles praising Bill's shows and his toughness in sticking out so long in such a rotten business. He appeared on late night talk shows. Life magazine titled their article "Goodbye to Rock."

And with applause on all sides, Bill Graham bowed out of the rock scene.

* * *

"The only reason to keep the Fillmore open at this point would be to make money, and though few have chosen to believe me on this point, money has never been my prime motivation; and now that it would become my only motivation to continue, I pass." No one who knows Bill Graham will tell you he does anything exclusively for money. He once quit an $18,000 a year job with Allis-Chalmers to manage the San Francisco Mime Troupe at $120 a month. He has contributed his time and money to dozens of causes he feels are worthwhile. Nonetheless, it would be naive to suppose money didn't play some major part in the retirement and resurrection of Bill Graham.

The two decisions to close the Fillmores were emotional times for Bill. There was righteous anger in 1969 and two years later, during the last week of Fillmore East, he once had to turn from the audience to hide his tears. Coincidentally — though probably not directly related — these times of peak emotion came when the Fillmore money flow was deceasing or creeping into the red.

Graham's first accountant, a soft-spoken man in his late twenties named Sebastian who now manages the Cockettes, joined him in the spring of 1966. According to the ex-accountant's best knowledge, Graham started the Fillmore with very little of his own money. "He borrowed a little here and there to get started, and he began making it back with the first concert. The best years were the boom years between 1965 and 1968. [Coincidentally, in his retirement statement, Bill marked these as the years when "the level of audience seemed much higher in terms of musical sophistication."] About 1969 it started slowing down and sinking into the same depression a lot of other businesses are still in."

Whether directly related or not, Bill's profits were falling off in August of 1969 when he announced the abortive Fillmore closing. Similarly, though Sebastian left before the end, he feels sure the Fillmore West was actually losing money during the major part of 1971. "I know that monetary considerations were a contributory factor. It might not have been the primary reason. If Bill had been satisfied with the scene, he might have stayed open, even if he lost money."

Of the Fillmore East, Graham told the newspapers, "I'm walking out on a gold mine, but I'm walking." Yet at least one Fillmore East usher remembers a fuller explanation from the same source. "He sat us down, all the ushers, and told us it was just a matter of time before everything would be closed down. He said that he was miserable, that the fire department was making these impossible demands, and that people were coming down on him heavily from all sides, and that no one appreciated what he was trying to do. I remember it was a pretty emotional scene.

"I was counting tickets several months before it closed and we hardly ever sold out. People just weren't coming down there because it was such a heavy scene. It was dangerous. There were always fights and a couple of times people got stabbed. One night the Hell's Angels tried to take over the house. The place was crawling with junkies. No one wanted to go down there.

"The night he told us he was going to close the place — it must have been six months before he made the announcement — he said he wasn't making any money. He said the groups were charging him too much and he just couldn't make it."

Asked about this particular meeting recently, Kip Cohen, manager of the Fillmore East said, "We had many, many such meetings where all the aspects of the Fillmore East were discussed. We didn't like to have ... closed-door upper-echelon meetings. When we were going through a tight period, we would discuss it.

"As for the problems down there, they were pretty bad, but I don't see how anything could have been done. It's worse now. We could see from what was happening that it was only an indication of what was about to happen.

"I don't think we were losing money. When a major headliner didn't bring a full house, then the profits were ... highly marginal."

So, with a losing venture on the West Coast and a goldmine in the East — where profits were sometimes "highly marginal" — Graham called an end to the Fillmores. Given the press conference, the newsy blast at the music industry, the major magazine and newspaper coverage, the television appearances; given the number of topnotch bands anxious to play a nostalgic last night at either one of the best rock ballrooms there had ever been, the Fillmores went out in a blaze of sell-outs and glory.

Whatever can be said about Graham's retirement statement, it's fair to say that it didn't hurt business.

* * *

"On a surface basis, Bill Graham is the most hard-bitten nasty man in the world. And I will say that he uses that very deliberately and very pathologically to cover up his absolute softness on a human level."
David Rubinson, vice president of the Fillmore Corporation

Wolfgang Wolodia Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931. His father died in an accident two days after he was born and he and his sister were placed in an orphanage to free his mother for work. In the summer of 1939 he was sent to an orphanage in Paris as part of a student exchange program. When the war broke out, he was not returned to Germany, and when the Nazis invaded France, he fled on foot to Marseilles with 63 other children. Of that number, Graham was one of 11 children who eventually arrived in New York in September of 1941.

He was placed in a Jewish foster home and grew up on the streets of the Bronx, taunted for his "Nazi" accent. There were dozens of fights while Bill worked on losing his accent. One wouldn't be surprised to learn that the first English phrase he mastered was "fuck off."

Today he is the undisputed master of high decibel sub-English idiom. The only hint of the early years comes in the origin of the voice: it starts from a glottal region, far back in the throat, and there are curious and hoarse resonances, a guttural stab and thrust to certain words.

The voice itself is distinctive and memorable, especially in anger, as those who have had the opportunity to argue with Bill — agents, managers, artists, audiences and journalists — know well. Any number of people into music or the music business can do a credible Bill Graham imitation.

It's done by speaking a little more deeply than normal, by forcing the voice back into the throat, by projecting the lips and molding them around the words. Bite the syllables off in rapid little chunks. Try these phrases:

"I can express my opinion of you in one word, mister: get out of my hall!"

"I run a straight house. [Be menacing:] If anyone can say Bill Graham cheated him, I want him here, now!"

Be pained and disappointed: "You ... you ask for a finger [make a chopping motion on your index finger] ... and you take an arm [make a chopping motion at your elbow]."

Be in command. "Him. [Point your finger:] I want him out!"

"Spare change? [Be incredulous:] What do you mean, spare change? [Take a quick step forward; yell:] Would you please tell me what you mean by spare change?"

If you think you have it down, try this at the top of your lungs: "I got no respect for you, mister! I got no respect for your publication!" (alternately: talent, music, or philosophy)

In their Graham imitations, most people tend to pick up the notable and frequently used words: "stupid prick," "motherfucker," "cunt" and "scumbag." But Bill is inventive in his invective, and has an ascending scale of abuse. An opening insult, perhaps based on filth, may be as mild as, "you spot of grease," or "you heap of garbage." There is a whole category based on vermin: cockroaches, lice, maggots and such. Genital appellations. Potent combinations: you lousy slimy cunt.

Graham was drafted into the Army, where he served in Korea. He earned a degree in business administration from Brooklyn College. He had jobs as a railroad paymaster in San Francisco, as a statistician in Southern California and as a regional manager for Allis-Chalmers in San Francisco.

Graham never seemed to find an identity in those jobs. In 1957 he enrolled in acting school, and for seven years, on and off, he made the rounds in New York looking for acting jobs. He got a few small parts, nothing major, and was once refused a job because his face was "too strong."

It is, in fact, a high desert landscape of a face, gaunt and bony with overhanging ledges and deep crevices. It has been called vulpine and even reptilian. The wide mouth and thick lips, the fierce stare under arched brows gives it a dark and brooding quality: the perfect character actor's face, striking and handsome in its odd way.

If one had to compare Bill Graham to a popular actor — in style rather than looks — perhaps the closest he could come to the flamboyance and power of the man would be Rod Steiger. Graham has something of Steiger's command, his power of voice and gesture, his unfortunate tendency to overplay a crucial scene.

Sebastian again: "I guess he rubs a lot of people the wrong way."

Anyone who's ever been to the Fillmores, to the Winterland, to any Graham concert, has likely seen Bill out front threatening some gate-crashers or dealers, winning time after time the escalating verbal showdown. The mobile actor's face, the tactic of standing a bit too close, the apparent threat of violence has saved Bill a little bit of money at the door and probably a lot of trouble inside. And this aggressive verbal style has been distilled into the most potent telephone style in the business.

That's important: A major chunk of the business in concert production is transacted over the telephone. You call to inquire about the availability of an act. An agent calls you to say he has an act routed through your area on such and such a date. Discussions about prices and percentages. Arguments about contracts, riders on contracts. Threats. Charm. Screams. Serious negotiation.

No one has yet called Bill Graham dishonest — Frank Barselona at Premiere Talent calls him "painfully honest" — but not many have found him consistently pleasant to deal with. One business agent was told both his legs would be broken if he bothered to show up for his client's show at the Civic Auditorium. A manager was disturbed because Bill had somehow gotten his home phone number and had harangued his wife for 15 minutes. His wife, he said, couldn't sleep that night.

An angry phone call from Bill Graham is almost always good for a powerful jolt of adrenalin. On the heavy end of the line, anyone who's seen Bill at work has been fascinated. In the loudest moments, he holds the phone away from his mouth and screams at the receiver in disgust and anger, as if the phone itself were the filthy cunt scumbag asking $2000 more than any decent human being would even think of. This display may then be followed by a conversation in a normal tone of voice, with Bill outlining his costs and his problems. Leading into howls of outrage, self-pity and violence.

* * *

A telephone conversation requesting an interview with Bill Graham (after refusing a personal interview and refusing to answer written questions, the promoter was asked for permission to speak with his employees):

"Certainly. I don't oppress anyone. But let me tell you something about the slimy ... little paper ... and that little cunt you work for. You're getting some great stories lately, some terrific reporting. But [sudden towering rage, top volume] you tell that cunt to meet me ... on television ... on the radio ... in the park. I'll bury him verbally. I want people to know what kind of man is telling them about Bill Graham. You tell him I want him out in the street at sunset and I'll be on the other end with a gun ..."

* * *

"At first what Bill did was good. He had heart. Then it began to seem like the bankbook was pumping blood through his veins."
Paul Baratta, former manager of the Fillmore West who opened Winterland and later became involved in a bitter losing struggle for that auditorium with Graham

1965. Graham and the Mime Troupe were in conflict ... a legitimate difference of opinion about the quality and content of the act. The Troupe took the position that Bill, as business manager, should have no say in these matters. Graham prepared to resign, but in a last and typical gesture, he held a benefit for the group.

"When somebody said, 'Let's put some talent together,'" he later told Ralph Gleason, "I started calling around. But the most significant thing about the beginning was that I really didn't know about a scene. I heard about these groups and I called everybody. One of the acts that is listed on my first handbill is the Family Dog [rival promoters], 'cause I called them. Somebody said, 'You should call them.' Great! I wanted a dog act! And I swear to God, they're listed. When they came, I said, 'What do you do?' They said, 'We hold dances, man!'"

The artistic and financial success of the benefit, its combination of the elements of business and theater, led Graham to form Bill Graham Presents in late 1965. He realized immediately that the bands required the best sound and lighting he could provide: expenses other promoters had always considered tangential at best.

Fillmore posters, which were originally designed as announcements, were featured in Time and Life, and began selling all over America. Graham then incorporated as William Graham Posters, Inc. Monthly revenue from poster sales often rose above box office nets. But there were financial quarrels with the artists: Wes Wilson's last poster has the name Fillmore as a serpent with a dollar sign in its mouth.

Poster sales dropped off rapidly. In August of 1968, when Graham moved to the Carousel Ballroom (the Fillmore West), he handled the monies from both Fillmores within the structure of William Graham Posters, Inc., which became the largest moneymaker in his organization. Bill Graham Presents, Inc. continued to promote concerts at Winterland and elsewhere, up to 50 per year. There were plans for television and film productions.

In October of 1968, Graham opened a talent booking agency, Millard, which he would advise and which would be on a first name basis with the Fillmore ballrooms. Three months later, in February of 1969, he established a holding company named the Fillmore Corporation. Incorporated in Delaware, where the laws are less stringent than in California, the Fillmore Corporation operated out of San Francisco and eventually encompassed five subsidiaries: the Fillmore Management Company, the Fillmore Record Company (two labels, Fillmore Records and San Francisco Records), Fillmore Sound Company, Fillmore Soundtrack Company and Fillmore Music Company (a music publishing company).

Within this maze of corporate identities, Graham often worked up to 20 hours a day, taking a little sleep on his frequent flights between New York and San Francisco. Refusing to delegate authority and increasingly suffering from fatigue, he became more and more difficult, impatient in negotiation, frequently flying into screaming rages. Important Fillmore principals were only able to talk to Bill in quick two-minute bursts between phone calls.

As theater owner, promoter, agent, manager and recording executive, Graham almost singlehandedly ran a music industry within the music industry ... and at enormous cost to himself. Because the various positions he assumed were by tradition adversary in relation to one another — an agent negotiates with a promoter; a manager deals with the record executive — he was in constant conflict with himself. And everyone else, or so it often seemed.

In light of these involvements, the retirement statement outlining some of the gross excesses of the music industry, begins to read like an indictment of Bill Graham himself. Packaging acts? His own agency did that. Groups of doubtful musical worth playing giant halls at inflated prices? Listen to Paul Baratta: "Talk about schlock acts. He did Grand Funk at the Oakland Coliseum [$6.50 top price in the 14,000 seat hall], and if that isn't schlock for rock, and if the Oakland Coliseum isn't a giant hall, I don't know what he's talking about." Baratta says it was his understanding that while Graham held a press conference denouncing giant hall concerts, he had Stephen Stills booked at Madison Square Garden.

By the middle of 1970, the whole Graham industry-within-an-industry began to teeter precariously, collapsing of its own weight. His early management involvements — such as the one with the Airplane — were stormy and short-lived. According to Airplane manager Bill Thompson, Graham early on had a Colonel Parker vision of management which didn't jibe well with the temperament of the Airplane. "He'd try to tell them, 'You get up at 8:00, at 9:00 you get a haircut, at 10:00 you appear on television.' And somebody would say, 'Fuck you, Bill. Eat shit.'" Santana also drifted away from Graham, for reasons which have never been explained, though there is evidence to suggest it was partially a matter of emotional incompatibility.

By late 1970, a rather incredible thing happened, if we believe Mick Oster, late of Millard in San Francisco. "Bill started Millard Agency as an adjunct to his management involvements. I don't think he ever put any money into it, it just started making its own way from the beginning. Barry Imhoff headed it up at first and then David Forrest did, but they both got into some other things, so Joe Bailey, who was next in line, took it over. One day Bill called Joe into his office. Bailey told me Bill had all the papers spread out on his desk, and he looked up at him and said, 'Joe, it's yours.' Joe said he couldn't believe it. A few minutes before he had been a salaried employee and all of a sudden he owned one of the largest agencies in the country."

By September of 1971, shortly after the Fillmores closed, Graham's lawyer, University of California Regent William Coblentz, began liquidating the assets of William Graham Posters, Inc.

In January of 1972, Fillmore Corporation vice president David Rubinson resigned and went on to do independent producing. He took the sound companies with him. Rubinson had been in charge of the record labels and his departure amounted to an admission that that three-year experiment had failed. Here again there is evidence of temperamental differences, between Graham and Rubinson. Graham has blamed the demise of the record labels on inadequate supervision on his part. Rubinson said Graham left him much less creative prerogative than he'd had in his previous job as a producer for Columbia Records. Rubinson quite rightly stated "I didn't make any hits," but he went on to point out that Graham hesitated several months before going ahead with the idea of the record company. During those few months a couple of Graham-managed groups who might have recorded for Fillmore signed contracts with other companies. One of those groups was Santana.

Left in the Fillmore Corporation today are the music publishing company and Fillmore Management, which continues to handle It's a Beautiful Day, Lamb, Taj Mahal and Elvin Bishop. According to people like Kip Cohen and the Airplane's Bill Thomson, Graham seems more relaxed lately, and is making a greater effort to understand his artists.

Despite the corporate shake-ups and a somewhat slower pace, Graham never remotely retired. He continues to maintain his hold on concert production in San Francisco. He produced a Grateful Dead show at the Felt Forum in New York, which suggests that given the right groups, Graham will do shows in the East, though probably not on a regular basis.

The Fillmore East building, which Graham owns, will probably be sold within the next few months, despite a recent announcement that independent producers would lease the building for occasional shows. Mike Rogers, Graham's real estate agent, explained the change of plans: "I suspect that publicity we got when we announced the leasing move got some prospective buyers to reconsider. For now, it looks very promising and we expect to sell the building soon."

Kip Cohen says Bill is very enthusiastic about a new film entitled Fillmore, which will be a music documentary about the last days of the Fillmore West. Claude Jarman, executive producer of the film, which will be distributed by 20th Century Fox, described it as a music documentary featuring about 12 groups who played during the last week of the Fillmore. There are scenes of Graham negotiating, shouting, threatening and laughing. According to some who have seen the film, Graham doesn't come off as exactly likable, but one gets an idea of the tremendous pressures he was under, as well as the ridiculous obstacles and demands he had to wade through, especially in that last week. According to Jarman, Graham will receive a percentage on the film — the same percentage as Santana.

The most ticklish and potentially profitable of recent Graham moves is a deal with Tomorrow Enterprises, Inc., a subsidiary of General Electric. He has been contracted to produce three or more rock concerts during 1972, which will be close-circuited live to a minimum of 70 theater sites. Persistent rumors in the trade have General Electric opting for a mammoth live site, such as the Houston Astrodome, with tickets at all sites running as high as seven dollars. The same rumors have Graham holding out for an acoustically manageable site holding perhaps 3000, with tickets running no more than four dollars at all sites. General Electric denies these reports.

Another rumor has Graham negotiating with the Stones for a possible Bay Area appearance.

Those who know Bill never took his retirement quite seriously. They know he couldn't pass up a good show. Commenting on his decision to keep Winterland open, he told the San Francisco Good Times, "... so if I do want to keep it open it must be because I want to do it. I still want my name up there. I still want to be hated, I still want to be yelled at." And one supposes he'll continue to yell back. To produce the best shows he can: for the excitement, for the challenge, for some ambiguous combination of love and money.