Few venues in rock history can match the hallowed legacy of the Fillmore East. The ornate theater located on Second Avenue near East 6th Street in New York City only operated for three years, but in that time, it hosted some of the greatest legends the music industry has ever known, including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Sly and the Family Stone to name just a few. But it wasn’t just the names emblazoned on the marquee that made the Fillmore East a special place to catch a show; it was the man who ran it.
Bill Graham, a German transplant born Wulf Wolodia Grajonca, opened the venue on March 8th, 1968, to stand as an East Coast outpost for his burgeoning live-concert empire. Graham operated a tight ship, demanding nothing less than excellence from his staff and the artists who inhabited his stage. To him, everything was about the fan experience, and he went out of his way to provide the best kind of atmosphere to take in a live performance, from the ornate, hand-rendered posters he printed up to announce the gigs; the lavish psychedelic visuals he commissioned the Joshua Light Show to provide behind the stage; the 35,000-watt, 26-speaker sound system custom designed by Bill Hanley; and even the barrel of free apples he left out for people departing at the end of the night. No detail was too small for Graham’s notice.
As a result, the bands and artists who played the Fillmore East, as well as its San Francisco counterpart, typically went the extra mile. For just $3, $4 or $5, you, as a ticketholder, were granted a pass to be taken to someplace truly magical. Today, the building operates as a wing of the Emigrant Savings bank, but in its late Sixties, early Seventies heyday, the Fillmore East was a place where you knew going in that you were going to witness something extraordinary. Here, on the 45th anniversary of the venue’s 1971 closing, we look back at 15 of the greatest shows that went down there.
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Big Brother and the Holding Company – March 8th, 1968
For the very first performance at the Fillmore East, Graham decided to bring a little bit of the sound of San Francisco out to the East Coast and tapped Big Brother and The Holding Company for the honor with Freddie King placed in the opening slot. The New York cultural cognoscenti descended on the venue that evening to see for themselves Graham’s operation at work, and to check out the buzzy blues-rock band fronted by a singer from Texas named Janis Joplin. Even though tensions in the group were at an all-time high because of Joplin’s burgeoning star status, Big Brother managed to set their differences aside that night and deliver a tremendous performance, especially in the second set, which kicked off at nearly two in the morning and garnered a rapturous standing ovation. In the course of just one night, the entire city was put on notice: The Fillmore East was the new place to be.
The Doors – March 23rd, 1968
In the late 1960s, the Doors, and particularly their frontman Jim Morrison, were one of the most unpredictable live acts on the planet. You simply didn’t know what they were going to do or how long they were going to do it for. Just two weeks after the Fillmore East opened, Graham booked the Southern California psych rockers to play four sets of music spread across two nights. The final set on the second evening was the one to catch. That night, the Doors played their regular collection of material but apparently enjoyed themselves so much that they came back after most of the crowd had thinned out and played again for nearly an hour. It was an incredible showing, and left a tremendous impression on one audience member in particular: future punk poetess Patti Smith. Her boyfriend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, was working as an usher at the venue and managed to get her a free pass to the show. It was a galvanizing experience, as she explained in her autobiography Just Kids. “I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that,” Smith wrote.
Sly and the Family Stone – Oct 5th, 1968
The Fillmore East was widely regarded as a palace of blues and rock, but every once in a while the place could get downright funky, like when Sly and the Family Stone rolled through in October 1968. The band had yet to really break through in the way they would following their turn at Woodstock the following year, and the release of their platinum-selling greatest-hits collection in 1971. Nevertheless, when their time came, they played that like they were already the biggest stars in the world. The energy throughout all four shows is incredibly intense, reaching a near-boiling point during the final performance. Opening with “M’Lady,” Sly and his group of musicians treated the crowd to a full-on soul explosion that never let up from start to finish. The highlight comes smack dab in the middle of the set with an ecstatic rendition of their single “Dance to the Music” featuring a hurricane of guitar solos amid a series of seismic horn blasts. At the center of it all of course is Sly, who keeps the energy high and the groove moving. While many iconic musicians would take over the Fillmore East stage in the years to come, you’d be hard pressed to pick out a better showman than Sly Stone.
Led Zeppelin – January 31st, 1969
Led Zeppelin’s sole residency at the Fillmore East came just a little more than two weeks after the band’s first, eponymous album became officially available for sale in the United States. Despite Jimmy Page’s cachet as the former guitarist of the Yardbirds, they were placed in the opener’s slot just before the psychedelic outfit Iron Butterfly closed out the show. During the first set, the Zeppelin boys absolutely wiped the floor with the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” hitmakers, especially with their extended performance of “Dazed and Confused.” It was so total a drubbing in fact, that the headliners demanded that they switch spots with the young British upstars for the later set so that they wouldn’t be forced to suffer the same humiliation twice in one night.
Jimi Hendrix – January 1st, 1970
If not for a contractual dispute, this show probably never would have taken place. Before he made it big, Jimi Hendrix had signed a deal with Ed Chalpin of PPX sometime around 1965. Later on, as he climbed the charts as the leader of the Jimi Hendrix Experience while signed to a different contract with Track Records, he was sued by Chalpin for a share of his profits. As a way to settle the dispute, Hendrix agreed to give over his next album to PPX for them to distribute as they saw fit. Not wanting to hand him the tapes of his magnum opus Electric Ladyland, Hendrix opted to form a totally new group with his old Army buddy Billy Cox on bass, and the funky Buddy Miles on drums. The outfit played the Fillmore East for only two nights – December 31st, 1969, and January 1st, 1970 – offering four sets of music that were distilled into the albums Band of Gypsys (which drew only on the January 1st show) and Live at the Fillmore East (which contained music from both gigs). While these performances don’t quite manage to reach the emotional or musical highs of Hendrix’s performances at Monterey, Woodstock or at Graham’s Winterland a little over a year earlier, Hendrix’s performance of the song “Machine Gun” still stands as one of peak moments of the guitarist’s short career.
Grateful Dead – February 11th, 1970
Bill Graham had a playful relationship with the Grateful Dead, who often delighted in pranking the stern promoter, but he knew he could always count on them to deliver for the crowd. Once, they even dosed his can of 7-Up with LSD right before they went onstage. Graham later described it as “one of the greatest evenings of my life.” The Dead played at the Fillmore East on several occasions, but this performance near the beginning of 1970 stands out from the rest. The Dead played for hours that night, but the highlight of the extended three-set performance came when Duane Allman and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac came out to jam with the band on the song “Dark Star.”
Joe Cocker – March 27th, 1970
On Sunday, August 17th, 1969, Joe Cocker etched his name into rock history with his guttural, scene-stealing set at Woodstock. That day, he was backed by his formidable Grease Band, who followed him as he shook, rattled and bellowed his way into immortality. A little over seven months later, the gravel-throated Brit was back in the United States headlining an extensive 48-city tour that was dubbed Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The crown jewel of the run of course came at the Fillmore East: a performance that was recorded for posterity and later released as a live album. The band that Cocker brought with him onstage featured 20 musicians total, including three different drummers. And yet, for all their combined power, they still failed to outshine their raspy front man as he “crooned” his way through some of the biggest hits of the day like the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and Bob Dylan’s immortal ballad “Girl From the North Country.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – June 6th, 1970
By 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were being feted by many as America’s answer to the Beatles thanks to their combination of tender folk balladry and socially conscious rock. When they finally booked a run of shows at the Fillmore East that summer, demand for tickets was off the charts. Fans lined the block four deep the night beforehand just to get their hands on one. Though they may have rubbed the Fillmore East crew the wrong way with their demands to block the Joshua Light Show and bring in their own sound equipment, the results onstage spoke for themselves. The sets were broken down into two portions, electric and acoustic, and each man was allowed their own time in the limelight to show what they could do. After the final performance on the final night, the audience simply refused to leave, so Graham himself went to the band and begged them to do an encore. Crosby demanded cash before they would agree to go on again, so the promoter started slipping $100 bills under the door. When he reached eight, they finally acquiesced and went out for one more song.
Pink Floyd – September 27th, 1970
In the fall of 1970, while a relative hit in the U.K., Pink Floyd was a little less than a sure bet across the pond. The band had soldiered on admirably in the wake of the dismissal of its frontman Syd Barrett, but American promoters were still skeptical of their ability to draw a crowd, Graham being chief among them. When it came time for Pink Floyd to tour the U.S. for the first time that year, Graham opted not to promote the gig and instead rented out the Fillmore East to the band at the cost of $3,000. Pink Floyd ultimately managed to sell out the venue, and put on a tremendous sonic and visual display by performing their then-latest album, Atom Heart Mother, in its entirety. To help them achieve the same sounds they had committed to vinyl, the group brought in a 10-piece horn section as well as a 20-piece choir. This was the first time that Americans audiences really got to experience the brain-frying sensory overload of seeing Pink Floyd live. It wouldn’t be the last.
Johnny Winter – October 3rd, 1970
It’s a little difficult to remember now, but back in 1970, Texas guitarist Johnny Winter was a huge star. He had just inked one of the most lucrative recording contracts in the history of the music business that came with a whopping $600,000 advance, and was tapped by many to be the next great gunslinger in the mold of Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Beck. The demand to see him live was intense, and when he brought his band, featuring a young Rick Derringer on second lead guitar, to the Fillmore East in the fall of 1970, the place was packed to the rafters. Winter didn’t disappoint, busting out his glass slide and letting loose with a scorching 20-minute plus jam on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” while adding his own signature Texas tone to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Derek and the Dominos – October 23rd, 1970
Following the breakup of his bands Cream and then Blind Faith in the late Sixties, Eric Clapton was more or less a man in the wilderness. He joined up for a while with Delaney and Bonnie, then headed down to the American South and formed a new outfit he called Derek and the Dominos with Duane Allman playing co-lead guitar on their sole album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Fueled by his lust over his friend George Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd, the record turned out to contain some of the most emotionally explosive material he would ever produce. Though he continued to remain apprehensive about his role as a frontman, this stop at the Fillmore East found Clapton in fine form. For reasons that remain unclear, he abstained from playing the title track from his latest release during this show, but for nearly two hours he regaled the crowd with a number of newer selections like “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” and “Key to the Highway” alongside old favorites like “Crossroads” and “Presence of the Lord.” The recordings from this short residency eventually made up two different live albums: 1973’s In Concert and 1994’s Live at the Fillmore.
Santana – April 3rd, 1971
Much like Janis Joplin and Co. at the Fillmore East opening gig, Santana hit the stage on April 3rd, 1971, as a band coming unglued. Cocaine had recently entered the picture, fomenting tension and paranoia between the members of the group. But just like Janis and her band, Carlos and the rest of Santana managed to set their squabbling aside and turn in a transcendent performance during the headlining set. In the beginning, Graham had been the band’s manager and was instrumental in getting them on the bill at Woodstock in 1969. They had gone their separate ways since then, and maybe with an eye to showing the promoter what he was missing out on, the leader and guitarist took his playing into the stratosphere. The opening number “Soul Sacrifice” is the high point and finds the group’s namesake going toe-to-toe with future Journey guitarist Neil Schon for a tremendous 12-minute six-string shootout.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – June 6th, 1971
On this night at the Fillmore East, the stars aligned to give rise to a brilliant one-off collaboration. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in the midst of an interview with a radio DJ on June 6th, 1971, when the interviewer casually mentioned that he was headed out to see Frank Zappa and his band that night at the Fillmore. Lennon mentioned that he was a fan of Zappa, so the DJ invited him along. The Mothers of Invention played their regular, freaky set that night, but then when it came time for the encore around 2 a.m., Zappa brought out both Lennon and Ono, who were greeted with a massive cheer. The duo jammed with the band for almost half an hour. The first number they pulled out was the rock & roll classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” which Lennon introduced by saying, “It’s wonderful to be here. This is a song that I used to sing when I was in the Cavern in Liverpool. I haven’t done it since.” Frank Zappa was used to blowing people’s minds, but this was something else entirely.
B.B. King – June 19th, 1971
Memphis blues great B.B. King had already played at the Fillmore West the previous year and was overwhelmed by the warm reception he received from the San Francisco crowd. Now with a major crossover hit to his name, “The Thrill is Gone,” King was a much better known entity, and performed his unmistakable brand of the blues for a rapt New York audience. While the early set went well, the later set, with King’s liberal use of a wah-wah pedal, was otherworldly.
The Allman Brothers Band – June 27th, 1971
By the summer of 1971, Bill Graham was officially fed up with the concert promotion game. He was tired of losing out bookings on bigger name artists to lesser-quality basketball arenas like Madison Square Garden. And the asking prices for the acts he did book were borderline cost-prohibitive. With all that in mind, he decided to close the doors of the Fillmore East. For the final performance, he invited one of his favorite groups, the Allman Brothers Band, to regale the New York audience one last time with their explosive blues rock. The Allmans played until dawn on June 27th, giving the hallowed venue the fitting sendoff that it deserved. “We played for roughly seven straight hours with everything we had,” drummer Butch Trucks remembered. “The feeling was just so overwhelming that I just started crying. Then we got into a jam, I think it was ‘Mountain Jam,’ that lasted for four straight hours. Nonstop. And when we finished, there was no applause whatsoever. The place was deathly quiet. Someone got up and opened the doors, the sun came pouring in.”