Bill Graham Drives His Chevy to the Levee
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
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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.
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