- Watch a vintage interview with Bill Graham at left.
Oct. 25 is the 20th anniversary of the death of promoter Bill Graham. Maybe that won’t mean much to people outside the Bay Area, but for those in the San Francisco area, Bill Graham was one hell of a unique man.
Under his gruff exterior, Graham was a promoter who cared about his customers. Those attending concerts at the Fillmore got apples from him on their way home.
And he often introduced acts personally, making himself part of the show. We remember when the Who played the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in 1972. Graham introduced the band one-by-one. First it was John Entwistle, then Roger Daltrey, then Keith Moon. We’ll never forget what happened next.
“And,” he said in his booming voice, “here’s the king, Pete Townshend.” The spotlight shined on Townshend, who was wearing a long robe and a huge crown like the kind in the old Imperial Margarine commercials. The crowd roared.
Our personal contact with Graham was minimal. He’d often stand out in the lobby of Winterland as the crowd came in. Saying hi to him was no guarantee of him being nice. But it was comforting to know he was there. You knew he knew what he was doing.
Graham wrote an autobiography (called “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out”), but maybe the best portrait of him is “Last Days of the Fillmore,” the wonderful documentary on the closing of the Fillmore West. He prowls the venue like a lion, and in one scene, literally chases a guy out of the place.
But he wasn’t always like that. Brad Kava, former rock critic at the San Jose Mercury News (and my one-time cubicle mate) sent me a couple of examples.
“When I was a student at Berkeley, I was passing an Italian restaurant on Broadway and I saw him eating alone. ‘Can I join you?’, I asked. He said, ‘Sure.’ I was amazed at this famous guy eating alone. I tried to talk him into coming to my class and giving a talk, but he wouldn’t, but he did share an hour of stories with me. I don’t remember anything specific, but that I was so nervous and he was so open, just wanting to talk to anyone. He was as curious about me as I was about him. It made a big impression, just being so famous and so normal at the same time.”
Kava also tells this story: “I sat with him during Summer Jam, the first big hip hop show at Shoreline (Amphitheater) and he was talking about the first really diverse, young audience at Shoreline….and so young. ‘I feel like the oldest guy here,’ I said.’Well, how do you think I feel?,’ he answered.
Journalist Rip Rense observed Graham in a different setting. “I once made the mistake of getting into one of his famous pick-up basketball games at intermission at a Grateful Dead concert at the L.A. Coliseum, after having had a beer. I thought it might be a minor laugh that no one took seriously. Wrong. Graham played as if his life was on the line. He drove the baseline like a demon, passed the ball as if he was trying to keep Magic Johnson from stealing it, shouted angrily when somebody loused up. He was one of these ‘draw-the-foul’ type of players who put up ridiculous shots, knowing full well he couldn’t make them, then claimed a foul. I dropped out of the game quickly. This tiny window into his personality made it clear how and why he succeeded in the somewhat less than gentle music business.”
Graham loved rock music and had a passion for it. He put the music and the customers first. One can only imagine with all the changes in the music industry how Graham would handle things today.
One thing’s for sure. The industry sure could use him now.
- San Francisco writer Joel Selvin on Bill Graham (from the San Francisco Chronicle)