On February 14, 2020, the New-York Historical Society opened a brand new exhibit dedicated to the life and work of Bill Graham (1931-1991), a legendary music promoter who worked with some of the biggest names in music–including Jimi Hendrix, Santana, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and more. Through his concerts, festivals, and music venues (the Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore West, Fillmore East), he launched and supported the careers of some of the most beloved musical artists of the 20th century.
As an avid music lover, and massive fan of the New-York Historical Society, I was counting down the days till this exhibit opened and visited on February 15th. Admittedly, I didn’t know who Bill Graham was prior to my visit, so this was a fantastic learning opportunity.
Bill Graham was born on January 8, 1931 as Wulf Wolodia Grajonca, in Berlin, Germany. As a child, he fled from the Nazis by being placed in a French orphanage with other Jewish children. He was one of One Thousand Children, those who escaped Europe to North America, and he landed in a foster home in The Bronx, NYC. As a result of being teased for being an immigrant and having a German accent, he changed his name to sound more American and worked to have a New York accent. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he was drafted by the US Army in 1951 and served in Korea where he was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
In the early 1960’s, Bill moved west to San Francisco, CA to be closer to one of his sisters, and began managing the San Francisco Mime Troupe and setting up concerts and events in spaces he rented. He realized he needed a permanent space for the artists he wanted to work with, and he began trying to purchase the Fillmore Auditorium, which he would finally do in 1966. Through securing the space, he produced concerts featuring legendary counterculture artists like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead that would sell-out shows, allowing Bill to book diverse support acts like Otis Redding and B.B. King. “I never give the public what it wants,” Bill asserted, “I give the public what it should want.” (quote from the exhibit)
Perhaps, one of the most recognizable ephemera from this era are the psychedelic posters that were created to advertise concerts. Many of the ones made for the Fillmore featured “electrifying colors, kaledioscopic patterns, and distorted typography” which would define the venue’s “identity and marketing.” Bill said: “Some were almost unreadable. I kept on saying to all the artists, ‘if you keep this design, the only thing I need from you is an asterisk. So we can explain it all on the bottom.'”
The exhibit is chock full of incredible photographs, artwork, and artifacts. Here’s just a small sampling from some names you may recognize:
Janis Joplin’s tambourine and microphone.
“On any given night, the Rolling Stones were the very best rock & roll band in the world.” – Bill Graham
What I really loved about this exhibit was the audio experience that is unique to the New-York Historical Society. It is a special, immersive experience — not your average audio tour — that goes on automatically as you approach different parts of the exhibition. The playlist includes songs from the Doors, Aerosmith, Blondie, David Bowie, Cream, Janis Joplin, Santana, Tom Petty, and many many more. It was delightful.