STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
He was the P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll.
Promoter Bill Graham turned rock concerts into historic events, changed the relationship between musical artists and audiences, and influenced the culture of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. He even appeared in movies like “Apocalypse Now,” “Bugsy” and Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.”
However, it’s concerts that Graham is best known for — launching the careers of rock legends at his Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore East and Fillmore West; and helping produce concerts that had humanitarian causes at their heart, such as 1985’s Live Aid, and the Amnesty International “Human Rights Now!” tour in 1988. As a promoter and manager, he worked with several of the biggest names in rock — The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane (“It was the longest year of my life,” Graham once said of managing them), Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.
In the fascinating exhibit “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” which is on view in Philadelphia at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Carlos Santana is quoted as saying: “Just tell people that Bill Graham was a true lion of Judah. He walked like a lion and he lived like a lion.”
“Bill’s story is a dramatic story,” NMAJH chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections Josh Perelman said during a preview event at the museum.
There’s memorabilia, photographs, the famous psychedelic Fillmore concert posters (some of which are lovingly presented under black light), guitars, stage attire (find out why the outfit Peter Frampton wore on the cover of “Frampton Comes Alive” is there), multiple music listening stations, film clips, audio recordings of Graham speaking and some deeply personal artifacts. And in case you’re having trouble finding the museum, there’s a multi-colored Volkswagen bus, “Steely Van,” parked on the outdoor plaza.
The main part of the exhibition, which has some elements placed on different floors of the museum, starts with the not-commonly-told story of how Graham arrived in the U.S. Born in Berlin in 1931 to Russian Jewish parents, the future rock impresario immigrated to New York at the age of 10 as part of a Red Cross effort to help Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. A particularly haunting artifact is Graham’s photo ID card (his name was Wulf Grajonca back then) bearing Nazi war eagle stamps.
Drafted during the Korean War, Graham — who used a phone book to come up with his Americanized name — would later move to San Francisco, just as the counterculture was gathering steam and that city’s music scene blossomed.
During the time he managed Santana, Graham got the then-unknown band onto the bill at Woodstock in 1969. The cowbell he played on stage with them can be seen in “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution.”
Graham’s skating-rink-turned-music-venue, the Winterland Ballroom, was the site of 1976’s “The Last Waltz” with The Band, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters and many others.
Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991. He was 60.
Organized and circulated by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, in association with the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, exhibit items being shown in public for the first time include Janis Joplin’s tambourine, a handwritten note from the singer Donovan and Pete Townshend’s 1968 Gibson SG Special from the “Tommy” era.
A New Year’s Eve-themed concourse features a Father Time costume that Graham was famous for wearing during annual Dec. 31 concerts he would produce. Also capturing the spirit is an installation of “The Joshua Light Show,” the liquid light show conceived in 1967 by multimedia artist Joshua White that served as a backdrop to many Graham-produced concerts.
Graham’s son, Alex, who is a New York-based electronic music DJ, estimated that 80 percent of the exhibition comes from his personal collection, and from his older brother, David. It’s quite a feat considering Bill Graham lost much of his memorabilia collection during a firebombing of the Bill Graham Presents offices in 1985, which happened after he had a full-page newspaper advertisement published protesting President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany.
“He had this ability to take care of people,” Alex Graham said of the key to his father’s American-dream success. Whether a lead singer, a security guard or a photographer, “it’s the understanding of treating people how he’d want to be treated,” Graham said. “There was an enormous sense of compassion, and sense of humor, he possessed.”
Perelman said: “His genius was to understand the opportunity that the energy and idealism of the times presented to make rock ‘n’ roll the voice of a generation.”