He wasn’t the first rock concert promoter, but Bill Graham became the most famous.
The only promoter in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was involved with such legendary events as Woodstock (1969), Watkins Glen (record one-day crowd of 600,000 in 1973), the Band’s Last Waltz (1976) and Live Aid (1985).
He’s also the father of the Fillmore, which is why the new Fillmore Minneapolis has a second-floor VIP space named BG’s Lounge in his honor.
The Fillmore was Graham’s flagship rock palace in San Francisco, where he began presenting acts in 1966. Opened in 1912, the building was home first to a dance school and then a roller rink. A prominent black businessman, Charles Sullivan, took it over in 1954, promoting such acts as Duke Ellington and James Brown.
Brash, loud and bossy, Graham finessed his way into the Fillmore by staging a benefit for the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe, which he managed at the time. Born Wulf Grajonca in Berlin 1930, the Holocaust survivor immigrated at age 10 to New York, where he picked up a new name and eventually a business degree before relocating to San Francisco.
Graham revolutionized the concert business — everything from staging to ticketing (his BASS tickets became Ticketmaster). He also launched a record label and managed acts, including Jefferson Airplane and Santana.
He was so much the archetype of the rock promoter that he was hired to play one in the movies “Apocalypse Now” and “The Doors”; he also appeared as himself in the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born.”
Graham died in 1991 in a Bay Area helicopter crash, returning from a Huey Lewis & the News concert. His firm, Bill Graham Presents, was sold to the company that eventually became Live Nation. His extensive archives of concert posters, T-shirts and live recordings were bought by a former Minnesota health care executive who markets them at wolfgangs.com.