Chet Helms, San Francisco rock promoter, manager and key figure in 1967’s Summer of Love, died Saturday of complications from a stroke suffered earlier in the week. He was sixty-two.
Born in Santa Maria, California, Helms was the oldest of three boys. After his father died when Helms was nine, the family moved to Texas. Helms remained in Texas for the next decade, enrolling in and dropping out of the University of Texas before moving to San Francisco in 1962. His beginnings as a music promoter were modest, as Helms served as a host of jam sessions in his Haight-Ashbury district home. Big Brother and the Holding Company was one of the groups that played, and while serving as their manager, Helms dramatically altered the course of the band by recruiting an old college acquaintance by the name of Janis Joplin to be their singer.
Helms was an early partner of legendary promoter Bill Graham, with the two putting on several shows at the Fillmore before parting ways. Graham continued to promote shows at the Fillmore, while Helms and his Family Dog production company moved to the Avalon Ballroom, with the Grateful Dead a mainstay, and everyone from the Doors to Bo Diddley passing through.
Country Joe and the Fish honed their chops underneath the Avalon’s psychedelic light shows, and the band’s guitarist Barry Melton credits Helms with fostering the kind of nurturing environment that helped bands progress. “There was an ethic unique to the time and place of San Francisco in the Sixties, an extraordinary ethic of tolerance and acceptance,” he says. “Chet was the living embodiment of that tolerance and acceptance and openness that made it all happen. That element was very much a reflection of who he was.”
After the scene dissipated, Helms took a hiatus from concert promotion in 1970, returning to the business off and on in 1978. In 1980 he began running Atelier Dore, an art gallery in San Francisco, and became passionate about digital photography in recent years.
“He was so tough that it’s a surprise,” says his widow Judy Davis. “This last year he was having a lot of problems with hepatitis C, and by the time he had his stroke he was weakened. He had a beautiful death. There were about ten people around the bed.”
Helms is survived by his wife, a stepdaughter and three grandchildren.