Jan. 8, 1931— Wolodia Grajonca, better known more than three decades later in his adopted country as rock concert promoter and artist manager Bill Graham, was born in Berlin.
"I don't know if there's a dirtier, not uglier, dirtier business,” Graham said in a 1971 interview included in The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969-1972, edited by Ezra Bookstein (2015). “I don’t know if any business has more shady characters in it. Maybe the underworld, which I don’t see.”
He may have found his business dirty, but few brought so much bluster and balancing flair and idealism to his. If anyone could survive dirtiness, even ugliness, it was the Jewish youth nicknamed “Wolfgang.” He had walked across Europe, all 55 ricket-stricken pounds of him, to escape the Nazis, then been shipped across the Atlantic with other children. His sister didn’t survive the passage, while his mother ended up dying in Auschwitz. Then, once in the United States, he had to adapt to a foster family.
That experience as a Holocaust survivor was seared into Graham’s consciousness for the rest of his life. Particularly in the 1980s, he became involved in a number of causes. His leadership of protests against Ronald Reagan’s plans to visit Bitburg cemetery in Germany, the final resting place of dozens of SS officers, led to his San Francisco office being firebombed. Rock fans were more generally aware, however, of the massive benefit concerts he organized in that decade, including Live Aid, two Amnesty International tours, and the 1987 Soviet-American Peace Concert in Moscow.
Alternately altruistic and abrasive, Graham was described by actor Peter Coyote as a cross between Mother Teresa and Al Capone. He first became immersed in the promotional game in organizing fundraisers for Coyote’s San Francisco Mime Troupe, where appearances by the Jefferson Airplane clued Graham into the vast potential of the Bay Area’s burgeoning musical scene.
He had no trouble mixing and matching musicians and other performers of different styles: rock stars, say, coupled with Miles Davis and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. What he did have trouble with was stars who were spoiled, lacking roots, professionalism and respect for their audiences. Consequently, he was not shy in telling off musicians whose drug habits undermined their performances—what critic Robert Christgau called “his exhibitionistic hostility, his epithets, his profane intolerance of inefficiency.”
Graham had already received an education about the public through an earlier job as a waiter in the Catskills, where he couldn’t escape noticing “the atrocities of the Concord dining room,” and how its patrons would stuff their napkins to take up to their rooms, “and you learn about people and tastes and mannerisms and dealing with the people, [and] you ain’t gonna learn it in no college.”
Without Graham, would anyone have heard of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company? Perhaps, but with his organizational genius he made sure these San Francisco counterculture musicians reached a larger audience sooner than they might have done in the hands of someone else.
Major venues were also an important part of Graham’s legend—e.g., the Fillmore West and East, the Winterland—as well as his self-admitted “adrenaline” and micro-management of the smallest details of the concert experience, including clean bathrooms.
Appropriately for someone who lived a high-flying but other-centered life, Graham died in a 1991 helicopter crash following a visit to musician Huey Lewis, whom he had just persuaded to perform in a benefit for victims of the 1991 Oakland Hills wildfire. A year later, the promoter was posthumously inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the “Non-Performer” category.