For those of you thinking I am talking about the pontificating Billy Graham, you are so wrong.
Bill Graham in 1974. Photo by Tony Morelli.
Bill Graham invented Rock and Roll promotion, he was the very best at it. I first met him right after Roller Derby had been shut down, and we had decided to go into the computerized ticketing business. Hal Silen had some dealings with him on a legal basis (I think he represented another promoter), but Bill didn’t hold that against us.
If you are looking for a full biography of Bill here, you won’t get it; you will only get our dealings with him and what we knew about him. We had heard that Bill was very unhappy with Ticketron who had been handling his tickets in Northern California. The reason was that outside of lousy service, the executives in New York had decided it would be smart if Ticketron cooperated with another promoter on the East Coast in backing a festival. Bill was furious; he felt that if Ticketron was making money from him, they should not be in the promotion business, and we approached him at the perfect time… Of course today the largest promoter is not only owned by the ticket company but also controls most of the best box office drawing acts…..Bill must be spinning.
What was interesting was that although we had never met, we had been presenting our Sunday night Roller Derby games at Kezar Pavilion in SF which was just a short distance from the Haight and from the Panhandle where the bands played and near the Fillmore. I had gone to the Fillmore a few times, had seen John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and two other major bands along with the light show for just $2.50 and had been given a choice of an apple or an orange. Eventually I saw Jimi Hendrix and other early greats but was not really into it at that time. I was always interested in what was going on that people liked.
Bill and I met at his office and he greeted my with “I have heard some very good things about you, and I believe that we should give each other an honest con”. I think we understood each other from the start.
Bill had been separated from his parents during the Holocaust and fled across Europe with his sisters. They were shielded by various wonderful people, and as unlikely as it sounds, they all made it to the U.S. Bill ended up in a camp north of New York City. He never heard from his parents again. Every Sunday people would drive up to see the children there to consider adoption. Bill was never selected. His name was Wolodia “Wolfgang” Grajonca (I could have misspelled that). Later on he had a music club in San Francisco which he called Wolfgangs, but I believe that was the only time he used his original name. Obviously, his childhood and youthful experiences had a powerful imprint on the rest of his life. When he was old enough, he went to New York City, opened the phone book, pointed his finger on a page and it came to rest on Bill Graham, and that is how he got his name.
He always felt that he was dramatic (boy, was he) and that he could be an actor, but he studied bookkeeping to be employable. He headed out to San Francisco and became business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which performed throughout the City. For a fund raiser they asked three of the bands that played for free in the Panhandle (maybe the Grateful Dead with Pigpen, Moby Grape, or others?) to headline a concert. It was so successful that a light went on over Bill’s head and he left the Mime troupe to put on his own shows at the Fillmore auditorium. Within a very short time, all of the great bands were playing at Bill’s venue, and he became friend and mentor to them, all which paid dividends when they hit huge, as most remained loyal to Bill over the years. Interestingly enough, the Fillmore was just a half a block away from Jim Jones budding religion, but I never asked Bill about it, especially after Jones essentially killed all of his congregation in the fatal Kool Aid mass suicide. But I digress, which you should be used to.
There were a number of things you had to understand in dealing with Bill and his organization: any ticket customer was his customer and had to be treated well. (I hate to tell you how many times in the middle of the night either Hal or I would get a call from a screaming maniac: “Pacific Stereo in San Jose opened late so they could pull tickets for the employees for the Dead shows and I am going to throw all of your f—— machines in the street!!!!) We would respond immediately to solve the problems, including working out with him what tickets could be held for employees to buy – never near the front by the stage. If Bill who constantly walked around with his clipboard at the concerts saw anybody who worked for us, for him for record labels, etc in those first rows, he could go into a rage. Not like today where it is very hard to get those great seats without paying a tremendous premium. And if any fans rushed the stage, he would get right in the middle and pull them away.
Also, his shows were presented like no other promoters. I really got to know that as I traveled the country later with Ticketmaster. Bill’s major concern was for the presentation and to keep his core audience happy. That is one reason he did so well at the Fillmore, later at Winterland, and at all the other venues he promoted. The Days on the Green were spectacular. They were held at the Oakland Stadium with over 50,000 seats. The stage design and what was surrounding it blew you away. I really was able to understand what it meant to listen to music with a great multitude and understand the positive effect it could have. Many parents never go to understand that.
If someone was in trouble, Bill was a soft touch. But the drive that was in him never stopped. If he could make the best deal ever, he would. Also, he did some things that you would have thought that would have been beneath him. Every weekend there would be three or four nights of the same acts at Winterland in San Francisco. Winterland was approved to hold 4400 people by the SF Fire Department. BASS was given 4300 tickets to sell and Bill held 100 tickets at the box office “for the kids who just couldn’t get tickets in advance”. Now these door tickets were magic tickets……somehow they were never torn and somehow ended up back in the box office. Remember, no charge cards at the box office, it was all cash. At some shows, the manager of the group would say “Great show, the audience was really jam-packed!”……and they were all settled on the basis of 4400 sold. I heard a rumor that as many as 7200 were in the building one night. Luckily, the fire department never shut it down.
One of his close associates told me a story about Winterland that I hadn’t heard. At the end of a Friday night show the manager of the band came in to settle and remarked to Bill that there must be over 7000 people on hand, and Bill told him that was impossible, since the fire department capacity was 4400. They got into a bit of a tiff. The next night even more people were on hand, and when the manager came to settle, he asked testily how many people were there that night. “4300” responded Bill. “What do mean 4300, the building is even more jammed than last night!” “Saturday’s crowd is always fatter” said Bill coolly.
Then again, the rumor goes, early in the week a “courier” would get on a plane for Switzerland and deposit the money in a secret account. At least, that is the rumor.
We kind of reached an accord. To keep his account, we raised the service charges on the tickets and split the proceeds with Bill (no I don’t think the bands knew). When people would contact his organization about the high service charges, they would tell them it was BASS’s fault…oh well.
Bill still wanted to be an actor and was good friends with Francis Ford Coppola. If you saw Apocalypse Now and remember the scene where a helicopter lands where the troops are, and a sleazy promoter gets out with Playboy Bunnies, that was Bill. His real acting coup occurred in the movie “Bugsy” where he was given the prime role of Lucky Luciano and acquitted himself quite well. He told a friend while the movie was being made, that he should have played Bugsy, but that was Bill.
Photo by Mark Sarfati
Bill was bigger than life, but it all came crashing to an end when one night when he was in his helicopter with his girlfriend and pilot (whose name was Killer), and he had flown from Shoreline Amphitheater to check out a show and then on to the Concord Pavilion where Huey Lewis was performing. The rain was really storming down and Huey said to Bill, wait till the show ends shortly, and you go back with me in my limo. The next thing everyone knew, the helicopter roared off into the night and crashed into a power pole along Highway 37 on his way back to his home on top of a hill in Marin County. The name of his house was Masada. As he was not expecting to die, among other things he had left undone was to give anybody the code to the secret Swiss accounts.
One story I will always remember that was told to me by Dave Furano: Bill and Dave were in New York and staying at the Park Lane Hotel on 59th Street by Central Park. Bill went across to FAO Schwartz to get some presents for his son. When he got back to the hotel he realized he had not only forgotten his key, but his room number. Of course the front desk would not tell him, so he got on the house phone and asked for Bill Graham’s Suite. “This is Dr. Billy Graham” a voice answered, and Bill went crazy, swearing and shouting “Dave, stop clowning, I need to get up to the room” Yes, it was Dr. Billy Graham whom I’m sure never forgot the Bill Graham sermon I heard so often.