Bill Graham, straight man for the Summer of Love

May 9, 2016


How is it that Bill Graham, legendary Bay Area concert promoter, rates a major museum exhibit? Lorri Starr, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco, where “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” is on display, says it’s quite simple: Graham deserves this show because he was “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll impresario that we will ever know.”

“He really brought this live music out into the public sphere,” she says. “And gave young kids, like us at the time, permission to stand up and dance along with the music.”

So why shouldn’t he be celebrated?

When most people think of Bill Graham, it’s solely as a music promoter. Starr notes that his involvement in the music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s goes much deeper than that. He was also a mentor.

“There’s a famous story that Carlos Santana tells of every time he would perform, Bill Graham would come backstage and have a long list of things that he needed to do better, on a clipboard,” Starr relates. “And then finally Carlos Santana performed somewhere, and he’s all nervous about what Bill Graham’s going to say, and Bill Graham turns the clipboard around, and there’s nothing on it.”

Lots of people were nervous about what Bill Graham was going to say: his temper was as legendary as his business savvy. In fact, son David Graham says his father’s toughness was part of his skill set.

“People got out of hand! And he sort of had to be the guy with the clipboard,” the younger Graham remembers. “I mean he was always proud to be, for lack of a better word, the straight guy.”

Many people are surprised to learn that someone named “Bill Graham” was Jewish. (He chose that name from a phone book.) That’s one of the reasons the CJM is hosting this show. Archival tape — both of Graham’s voice and people who knew him — tell his story, from his parents sending him out of Berlin to escape the Nazis, all the way through his death 25 years ago in a helicopter crash, returning from a concert.

Graham’s personal story is interwoven with the music and politics of the time. Recordings from that period by Jefferson Airplane, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, and others can be heard while viewing large-format photos of bands and their fans. Psychedelic concert posters from the Fillmore, Graham’s old concert hall, hang above artifacts such as guitars — both damaged and whole: Keith Richards’ taped-up boot and one of Joplin’s outfits, complete down to her feather boa and tambourine.

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through July 5th. Allow plenty of time; it’s a big show, fitting of a big personality.