The Man Who Revolutionized US Rock

Bonnie McLean poster for Fillmore Auditorium July 1967. Courtesy: Bahr Gallery

It’s a trip back to the birth of Sixties youth culture, guitar virtuosos, the Fillmore, and multimedia extravaganzas in the New-York Historical Society exhibition, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, on display through January 3.

The show, originally organized by LA’s Skirball Cultural Center, tells the story of the man who created the Fillmore, catapulted legendary bands to fame, grew concert audiences to stadium size, and gave back to society by organizing once-in-a-lifetime benefit concerts televised throughout the world.

Photos, show posters, videos, rock and soul music, and even a wall from the legendary Joshua Light Show bring the story of Bill Graham to life.

Bill Graham in 1968 Fillmore Auditorium office. Gene Anthony photo in Graham collection

Graham’s life was saved by Kindertransport during World War II – a dramatic story told inside the entry to the exhibition. He was adopted and grew up in the Bronx, moved to San Francisco, and had the right skills in the right place at the right time to bring bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Hendrix, and Big Brother and the Holding Company to a larger audience.

In preparing the exhibition, the curators did original research into Graham’s early life and pulled artifacts, paraphernalia, and stories related to each decade of his concert-promotion career – leasing the Fillmore Auditorium in a largely African-American neighborhood, creating events that interspersed rock-and-roll acts with poets and new-age philosophers, securing larger venues in the Bay Area, opening the Fillmore East in 1968 in New York inside a former Yiddish vaudeville house on Second Avenue.

Joshua Light Show backs 1968 Mothers of Invention at Fillmore East. Courtesy: Joshua White

The show has plenty of the Fillmore’s promotional posters, and pays tribute to the artists who created them, such as Wes Wilson and Graham’s wife, Bonnie McLean. The curators also provide a few side-by-side displays of the original ink drawings for the psychedelic broadsides with the full-color printed versions. See some of our favorites in our Flickr album.

Despite the legendary status of the Graham’s two Fillmore stages, they only lasted until 1971. Although they were highly profitable, the writing was on the wall – the demand (particularly after Woodstock) to see the Stones, The Who, Santana, and other frenzy-inducing performers was too big to be satisfied inside the constraints of traditional theaters.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Paige in 1977 and 1985 Metallica fans. Photos: Michael Zagaris and Ken Friedman

Through it all, Graham managed some stars, like Santana; created festivals featuring bands like Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, the Eagles in the Seventies; organized Dylan’s historic 1974 tour; and produced The Last Waltz for The Band’s farewell.

The exhibition lets visitors savor these memories and moments through behind-the-scenes stories about Bill’s relationships with the artists, who often said yes to Bill’s ideas because they knew he was a perfectionist who would deliver his promises, understood what made fans happy, and always saw the epic, historic perspective behind that moment in culture.

1986 Live Aid T-shirt with Ken Regan’s photo of US benefit stars. Graham and Regan collections

The exhibition puts special focus on Bill’s willingness to tackle the monumental challenges of producing nationally televised benefit concerts, such as Live Aid, and taking tours and bands to places in the world that had never seen super-sized rock events before – Moscow’s 1987 concert for peace and the 1988 five-continent tour for Amnesty International with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and Sting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Watch the trailer for the show:

If you’re in NYC, go over to hear the music and see the show before it closes January 3.  If not, take this “Curator Confidential” walk through the exhibition with the people behind the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, who talk about the life of Bill Graham and the history they lived with him – a Zoom session produced by NYHS last August while the museum was still closed.

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