In honor of Bill Graham’s 84th birthday on Jan. 8 and the gathering this weekend for a San Francisco Rock & Roll Family Reunion at the Fillmore Auditorium, BAM is pleased to present the following interview with Bill Graham. You can listen to the entire interview by clicking on the link at the bottom. This is the first time the audio of this exclusive interview has been made available to the public.
In an interview conducted by BAM Managing Director Kenny Wardell for KMEL radio in 1981, the rock impresario revealed his personal backstage viewpoint on the music documentary Fillmore: The Last Days; on the passing of Janis, Jimi, and Jim; on the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, the Rolling Stones, and himself. We present it here in celebration of Bill’s birthday on January 8. He would have been 84. We miss him more than words can say. Here’s the story that Kenny wrote for the 130-page KMEL concert/sports/entertainment guide in 1981.
Bill Graham was born Wolfgang Grajonca on Jan. 8, 1931, the child of Russian Jews who had moved to Berlin before his birth. His father was killed in an accident two days after Bill was born, and his mother was eventually forced to place him and his sisters in an orphanage so she could seek employment. As part of a student exchange program, the Grajonca children were in France in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, and France and Britain declared war against Germany. When the German armies invaded, Bill and his sister fled with a group of children and a Red Cross worker. They trekked to Marseilles and Toulouse; across the Pyrenees to Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon; then on to Casablanca, Dakar, Bermuda, Cuba; and finally, in 1941, to New York City. Of the 65 who began, only 11 finished the journey. Bill ‘s sister was among those who perished.
Bill was placed in a Jewish foster home in the Bronx. At age 18, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. “I can’t remember an evening of exultation on that level,” he recalled. After high school, Bill changed his surname from Grajonca to Graham, and entered City College of New York. The Army interrupted his studies and sent him to Korea, where he garnered a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and two court martials. After his time in the service, he returned to college, supporting himself by driving a cab and waiting on tables in hotels in the Catskill Mountains. In 1955, he graduated from college with a degree in business administration, and he moved to San Francisco. For the next 10 years, he alternately honed his business skills with several corporations, studied acting, traveled in Europe, and tried to break into theater as a director/actor. In 1965, he quit a managerial position with the Allis-Chalmers Corporation (at $18,000 a year) to take a job (at $120 a month) as the business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. That decision, in turn, led to his producing adventures.
Bill Graham staged his first concert in 1965. He quickly became the undisputed master of concert production and promotion, bringing an endless string of top quality acts to the San Francisco Bay Area, producing nationwide tours for rock superstars like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and providing his consulting expertise to show producers throughout the country. Bill also manages the major rock groups Santana, Gamma (featuring Ronnie Montrose), Eddie Money, and Paul Collins & The Beat. As the creator and proprietor of the now-legendary Fillmore rock emporiums, Bill Graham established himself as the foremost perfectionist in his profession, and set standards of ethics and excellence that have earned him the respect of the entire entertainment industry.
Bill works out of his offices and workshops in San Francisco, and lives in Marin County. He has two sons, David and Alexander.
To get this KMEL interview, we had to wait until Bill came back from New York City, where he was working on the coordination of the upcoming Rolling Stones tour. The call finally came from Jan, Bill’s secretary: “Be in Bill’s office at 3:00!” Carrying my trusty tape recorder, I sat in the BGP office waiting for Bill to finish signing some last minute documents. Bill apologized that he had only 20 minutes for the interview. He was in California for a very brief visit with his family and then he was almost immediately returning to New York City. Two hours later, Bill still had a lot of stories in him to tell. The following is just a portion of the entertainment information and experiences that he told me.
Kenny Wardell: Who are your rock heroes?
Bill Graham: There aren’t that many. I try to get away from just their ability to entertain people. For me, it’s more how they have conducted themselves with whatever degree of success they’ve had. There’s some that are right on the top. I’d have to mention David Bowie for more reasons than you might expect. First of all, he has taken the chance at failing in areas that most people wouldn’t even attempt: the stage, the screen, the diversification of stage and designs. On top of that, his success doesn’t dictate to him. He lives his life. He lives in Kenya, and part of the time he lives in Berlin. And he uses these places as sources of material for his life and for his art. He will travel, and he will take chances. Elephant Man is a major, major daring display of the man’s virtuosity. [Bowie played the title role on Broadway in 157 performances between 1980 and 1981.] He doesn’t follow the usual steps of the formulated approach of one album a year, a tour behind the album, and so on. He lives his life as he sees fit, which I think a lot of artists only state they do, after they go through eight or 10 years of doing it by formula. Bowie, as much as anyone, stands out to me–because within that freedom, look what he’s done.
The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia are my heroes for the obvious reasons. They’ve never not been who they say they are. I have to be careful with The Grateful Dead because I’m such a big fan of what they do when it’s right. I mean, they have off nights, like we all have off nights in our lives. But when the Dead are on, they are the best rock & roll group in the world on that night. The Dead have done it to me as much as any group that I know. You can’t bottle it. They don’t sell records as much as some other commercially great groups. Yet wherever they go, their legions of fans are there for one particular reason. It has nothing to do with drugs, nothing. You simply have a good time. For me and for thousands of others, they can transform a room, like The Warfield–which seats 2,000–or Madison Square Garden, which seats 20,000. I mean, let’s just have a good time. I don’t know what your problems are, but for one night with the Dead, people can walk into the room, and what happens is something that happened 15 years ago, five years ago, and 10 years from now. You may come with one or two people, and, all of a sudden, you’re relatives. You may not talk to each other, you don’t kiss, you don’t touch, but when they get into “Sugar Magnolia,” suddenly, everything is OK. When you’re bumping into each other, there’s an unknown smile coming from an unknown person, and you have to admire the fact that it has never overtaken the Dead’s ego. There is no commercial gain, other than what they gain from playing and from their records. They don’t endorse Sunkist Orange Juice. They still live pretty much the same lifestyle. I know that unless Jerry were in the hospital, he’d be playing his guitar somewhere. He still plays the clubs. He’s still faithful to who he claims he is. He’s a guitar player!
I speak very briefly about Carlos, because I’m involved with his career. I love Devadip Carlos Santana because of his convictions, and because I believe he plays as emotional guitar as I know. I enjoy him very much. I’m sure there are other individuals. I would have to mention Van Morrison, who is an artist and a man unto himself. He’s given us lyrics that are awesome. You catch him on one of his good nights, and you’re not going to see a finer performer. I’d also have to throw in Taj Mahal, who is a musicologist of the highest order.
But I refer more in the first three cases to the combination of the public artist and the private person, and I think David Bowie, Jerry Garcia, and Carlos Santana are exemplary of the kinds of people that I would consider heroes, if I were into idolatry.
Wardell: How many shows have you produced?
Graham: I couldn’t tell you, but on our 10th anniversary in 1976, we took a rough count, because I was curious. At that time it was a little over 16,000 shows.
Wardell: What was your most successful gig?
Graham: If you’re talking about “successful” relative to the quality of performance, there are too many to mention. I have some artists that I like a great deal, and on certain nights, not only did I like them, but the people who came to see them joined me in that affection. But if you’re talking about the combination of the quality of the stage and what it did to the house to the extent of what we tried to do, there are the Days On the Green, there’s Watkins Glen [a 1973 rock festival attended by 600,000 fans], and there’s our involvement with Woodstock. But if there was one where we set out to create a high level event involving not only public assembly, but serving of food, and other extra “ touches,” I would have to say The Last Waltz [this was The Band’s “farewell concert,” held on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco].
The Last Waltz just flowed, and the key for that evening, besides all the moves, the food, the dress, and the style, is that we didn’t announce all the superstars. We figured, after so many years in The City, we’re just going to call it “The Last Waltz,” the last appearance by The Band, and some “friends.” We didn’t say Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, and Van Morrison. We charged you $25, and we hoped that you realized you were gonna get something for that $25. So, the food was there, the Waltz thing was there, but we had it orchestrated in such a way that when a table finished eating on the main floor behind the Waltz area, we had people going over to the table, folding it up and removing it. That became a little dance area. And all of a sudden, the dining room became a ballroom, and then the ballroom became a concert hall. I can’t remember from the logistical point of view an evening of exultation on that level, not only from my point of view but from the point of view of the public that went. And it was…If “orgasmic” sounds silly, I don’t know what else to call it.
Wardell: If that show was the most successful, what was the biggest failure?
Graham: That was a show that didn’t happen. Led Zeppelin had sold $1.2 million tickets two weeks before the show. I said, “My God, I don’t have to worry. They sold out in one-and-a-half days!” So, I took my family up on the river for a five-day trip. Three days down, I looked up at the sky, and there was this skywriting plane saying in smoke: “B·I·L·L call.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I went to the shore and got to the phone booth and thought, “What could be wrong? My family is with me, there’s gotta be something wrong with the business.” So I called Jerry [Pompili] here in the office and said, “Is anybody hurt?” He told me Robert Plant had hit a tree in Korfu, an island in the Mediterranean, and we had to cancel. So I came back, and we refunded $1.2 million.
I think the biggest failure as to what went on is that, some years ago, we were in The Fillmore at the Carousel Ballroom at Market and Van Ness, and we were also renting Winterland from time to time. This particular weekend, Jimi Hendrix, who was very big at the time, was playing Winterland. I didn’t want to leave The Fillmore dark, and it so happened that the manager of [country star] Buck Owens called to see if I wanted to put Buck Owens & the Buckaroos in The Fillmore. I thought, “I’ll go for two different audiences.” We bought a few hundred dollars of hay and put hay all over the floor.
Jimi Hendrix sold out, he did very very well. But Buck Owens didn’t work out at The Fillmore at all. We lost a substantial sum of money, yet the show went on. He was a trouper. A few weeks later, I met Buck Owens. He played the Oakland Coliseum, and he sold out 15,000 seats. I finally realized that in the ’60s, the connotation of The Fillmore was psychedelic, and to the country person, you just didn’t go to The Fillmore. That’s what it taught me. When you get the reputation of being a house that caters to certain clientele, if you want a hot dog, you don’t go to a Yugoslavian deli. Buck Owens was a failure not because of Buck Owens, but because he played at The Fillmore.
Wardell: You just passed the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Fillmores East and West. Can you reminisce about the Fillmore era for us?
Graham: It wasn’t really the Fillmore. For me, it was the late ’60s. It was the era of “Stop the world I want to get off. I don’t
want to hear about war, unemployment, and all the difficulties of communicating with parents, relatives, and the old world.” And I came from that world. I came into the rock & roll world from the mid-’60s. I was 35 years old, and the majority of the people I dealt with were younger than I was, from 15 to 30 perhaps. And what I remember is a lot of good things, a lot of the great shows, and a lot of the effect that society had on me and whatever effect I may have had on that society.
The great memories of the Fillmore are twofold for me. We realized that when Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, or Janis Joplin played, we didn’t need any more to fill it up. We didn’t have to worry about draw. We were able to then start putting on acts that I thought people should see and hear. I didn’t know a lot of these acts before I got into the rock & roll business, but I met people like Mr. Garcia and Michael Bloomfield and Duane Allman, who would say, “Bill, you ought to get hip to Otis Redding of Macon, Georgia…You should go to Chuck Berry in Missouri…You should go visit Pops Staples [leader of the Staples Family] in Detroit.” I went to these people’s homes because, again, to them, The Fillmore was “that psychedelic place.” But I got them to come out here and initially play under the white rock & roll artists. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe the faces of the people who first saw them when they came to see the Grateful Dead. Before they saw the Dead, who were dessert, they had to eat meat, which was Miles Davis, or Buddy Rich with Ten Years After. So, I have great memories of people reacting to not what they were asking for but to what we thought they should ask for.
I think the most joyous and meaningful memory I have of those days is the thought that I always have about what we do: it’s the staff of people that was put together then, and that is together now. We deal in stage management, in production, in ideas. One of the production managers in our company came to the company as a 27-year-old who said, “I want to be in the business.” So that person carried a broom, and two years later, he’d become a stage-hand. Today, he’s head of production, and he’s as good an idea man as I am. If there are any good memories bigger than that, I don’t know. I mean, the pleasure that the public derives from our shows is fine…but it’s this company that’s the biggest accomplishment for me. That goes far beyond what I have in the bank.
Wardell: What made you close The Fillmore?
Graham: It began to be tremendous, totally consuming my life, my private life. And then [there were] difficulties in my family. But the reason The Fillmore closed was that I thought the bands at the time were beginning to become rather demanding. With the emergence of the Woodstock philosophy in 1969, the world was told how big rock & roll really was. And by 1971, the managers, the tax consultants, and the advisers made life very difficult. The pressures came from all sides, and, of course, it was augmented by the fact that I was flying 3,000 miles back and forth between the Fillmores East [in New York City] and West [in San Francisco].
Wardell: You worked with Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. What led them to cross over the line?
Graham: I did not achieve any fame, high notoriety, or high level of income in my early 20s. Therefore, I don’t know what it’s like. But it obviously has to relate to an inability to deal with the level of success that they achieved. Whether it’s media success, financial success, or power success, there had to be something that didn’t fit. They were all relatively quiet people off the stage, but they all had demons–as we all do, in our private world.
I had occasions to speak with Janis. She lived here. There was a good, close relationship. Jim played with us often enough so there was conversation, and there was a lot of conversation with Jimi in New York. How can I explain? I haven’t experienced it.
I’m not an artist. It’s like me saying, “I can dig it,” but how can I know what it’s like to be blind, or to be a quadruple amputee? What’s it like to be 23 years old, and people are telling you that you are a god or a queen? What was it like to be Janis Joplin and walk on the stage at Woodstock and 500 thousand people would have bowed, like they do In the Middle East, if [she] had asked them to? Well, what do you do when you go home at night, put your head down?
I can’t sit here and tell you what did them in. But it has to relate to the grandiose figure that was made of them by millions of people.
Wardell: Why don’t you give us a good Grateful Dead story?
Graham: I don’t think they would object, because it happened many, many years ago, in the lightning days, the acid days, the mid-’60s, when some people did a lot of experimenting with their bodies and their souls. And some, I guess, continue to do that. Anyway, in the early days, whenever they played The Fillmore, I was always concerned that if there’s anybody on the premises who was going to be straight to relate to the world of reality, it had to be me. What I did in my private life was my private life. On the job, it was my responsibility to make sure that somebody knew the difference between the street and the curb on the sidewalk. Again, [there was] the world of practicality, common sense, reality; and I wanted to be “clean,” so to speak, of what came into my mind…clear-headed. Of course, it became sort of a joke with some of the groups–“Come on, Bill, have a drink”–and especially with the Grateful Dead. It even got to the point in those days that when the Grateful Dead played The Fillmore, my wife gave me a thermos and made me a boxed lunch, and we put a waxed stamp on it. I also used to drink a lot of 7-Up in those days, in a can. Many gigs went by and they’d say, “Come on Bill, come on,” and I’d say, “Thank you, gentlemen, but pass.” Then one night, I went into the dressing room, like I always did, and I picked up a can of 7-Up. I realized [later] what they had done that night was make sure that nobody touched the garbage can of ice and 7-Up. And what someone had done was put a hypodermic needle through all of the canned drinks and put a little bit of “goodies” inside. I opened one of the 7-Up cans and I drank it. And maybe a half-hour before they got on stage, I was the Lone Ranger and Tonto in one. Mickey Hart asked me if I wanted to join them on the stage for some merriment, and he gave me a drumstick. For the next three-and-a-half hours, I conducted the Grateful Dead orchestra and probably lovingly made an ass of myself. I don’t think I ran the club, but I was on the stage with musicians I respect and who I really cared about, and I care about now. And I can tell my children, I conducted the Grateful Dead.
Wardell: In the ’60s, you managed Jefferson Airplane, a band that evolved into the highly successful 1980s group, Jefferson Starship. What would you say is the reason for their survival in the fickle world of popular music?
Graham: Right off the bat, I would have to say that primarily it has to do with the maniacal drive of Paul Kantner…someone who is a much more important person in rock & roll than a lot of people seem to realize. Paul is not an outgoing type of person, but he is as current on the S.F. scene, the music scene and cultural scene, as anyone I know. As the spearhead for that group, he is as much responsible for their survival as for their music. I would have to say Paul’s tenacity and their ability to write music that relates to the times that they live in is a great credit to Paul and Jefferson Starship. I don’t think I’m qualified to say any more beyond that, except that I have the highest regard for Paul Kantner as a human being.
Wardell: Why do the Stones, Bob Dylan, and others choose you to be their concert tour coordinator?
Graham: I can’t study the universe and I don’t have an answer, but hopefully, it’s because of whatever principles and common sense are utilized and adhered to in the running of this organization here for all these years. It’s not really for me to say. They also would have taken into consideration whatever we have done in the years and how we’ve done it.
I think the question you’ve asked me is probably as hard a question as you can put to me, because of course it can sound very vain. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I don’t have a good organization and that I don’t have a good staff. I think they are as fine an organization as anything that exists in the country. I’d much rather say they’re better than anybody else; and whoever it is that utilizes our services I think has made a good choice.
Wardell: Will this Rolling Stones tour be their last, as is often rumored?
Graham: I have no idea. None whatsoever. And the one thing I will do is make no comment about the Rolling Stones, now or anytime in the future.
Wardell: Can you tell us what it’s like working with Mick?
Graham: On a positive note, far beyond my expectations.
Wardell: You’re currently managing the immensely talented guitarist, Devadip Carlos Santana. Is it true that Santana got caught sneaking into the old Fillmore?
Graham: He wasn’t caught coming into The Fillmore, but I’ll tell you what did happen. We had a show with one of the great bills–Cream, the Butterfield Blues Band, and Charlie Musselwhite–two sets a night, for $3. Anyway, my Fillmore office was on the second floor over the marquee. I heard some noise. Looked out, and saw these two guys climbing up on the drainpipe to get on the marquee and get into some window. I got them into the office. One of them was called Carlos Santana, and the other was Michael Carabello. I asked them, “What are you guys doing?” So Carlos took a harmonica out of his pocket and said he was a musician. He explained he had no money and that this was his only way of getting into the building, and he really wanted me to hear them play. So I asked, “What do you want to do?” And he said, “We want to put together Latin music.” I said, “Latin?” He said that was his big thing. So the next day, they came back with some ideas and tapes, and here we are. That’s pretty much it.
Wardell: Has producing the latest Santana LP been an artistic outlet for you?
Graham: Tremendous. Other than the occasional challenges such as The Last Waltz, Days on the Green, and this project now, I’ve had two creative outlets in my adult life. One was the Fillmore and the ideas associated with it, and number two was the organization of people that run my business. This record is another one.
Wardell: Who was the most exciting performer you’ve ever seen?
Graham: Whenever that question comes up, it’s very easy, because I’ve never found anyone to disagree who’s seen this artist. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to other artists. You know, I don’t want people calling me and saying, “Didn’t you think I was great?” Thank God it’s an artist who is so magnificent that there’s never any question. It was Otis Redding, who today’s people don’t know really well. How do you describe a 6’3” black Adonis who moved and was more sensual than anything I’d ever seen? He was a panther in heat. He was a magnificent, awesome display of talent, and I’ve yet to meet a performer who didn’t think the same thing. When Otis Redding came to play at The Fillmore, Janis and Jerry and all the others came early. It was the only time in my entire career that major artists came to The Fillmore early. They wanted to be in the front.
Wardell: You have recently acquired The Old Waldorf. Do you see small clubs being a big part of today’s entertainment?
Graham: Very, very much so. During the ’70s, everything was major arenas and also three acts. Now, because headline acts control who’s on those shows, they only want one act on to begin with. So the new acts have no chance in the major arenas, which is one of the reasons you’d want to start in a club. Also–as important, if not more important–is that the graduate of the ’60s just does not go to the 15,000-seaters anymore, so a lot of the superstars aren’t seen by the original fans. Some of them will still go, but many of them won’t. They will go to see their stars, or the new upcoming stars, in a club, where they can have a drink they can enjoy. In a club, when we have Jefferson Starship, or Santana, or Van Morrison play, it’s a major event. And again, it happens more in the Bay Area than anywhere, thanks to the groups that live here.
The club scene will always be there, and should always be there.
Wardell: After all you’ve done, all the accomplishments, your contributions to culture and entertainment, do you–Bill Graham, the man–feel fulfilled?
Graham: Fulfilled, in the sense of some accomplishment?…I feel good about what the company has done, and what I’ve done with the company. Relative to being fulfilled as a human being, I’ve got a ways to go there. I have no desire to go into my private life. I was married once. But any person who more often than not lives and sleeps alone should not consider himself fulfilled.
In the end, I think life is to be shared by two or more people. I’m a bachelor, and I have my children a good deal of the time, but I don’t share my life with one individual. And until you have a mate to share your life with, I don’t think you can be fulfilled on the level that you would want to experience before you go away.