Learn Promoter Bill Graham's Surprising Story at a New Exhibit on His Life and Work

Bill Graham - photo credit is Ken Regan.jpg
Ken Regan
Bill Graham

He was born to Jewish parents in 1930s Germany, escaped the Holocaust to New York City (his mother died at Auschwitz), and later moved to San Francisco, where he helped foster a historic and still-thriving rock 'n' roll scene. So there's pretty much no disputing that concert promoter and music impresario Bill Graham lived an extraordinary life -- even if he did have a healthy group of detractors by the time of his death in 1991.

It's that rich arc of Graham's story -- from orphaned WWII refugee to unrivaled live music magnate -- that a new exhibit of photographs, artwork, and memorabilia aims to capture. It opens tomorrow at the Lush Life Gallery at San Francisco's Jazz Heritage Center, which is only steps from the Fillmore Auditorium, the concert venue where Graham -- and countless local and nonlocal bands -- would become famous.

"We just want to celebrate him a little bit," says Bonnie Simmons, executive director of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, which provides grants every year to local nonprofits for causes like sustainable gardening and music education. She notes that it will be 20 years this October that Graham died in a helicopter crash leaving a Huey Lewis and the News concert at Concord Pavilion. (He was 60.)

Bill Graham - photo credit is Jay Blakesberg.jpg
Bill Graham, photo by Jay Blakesberg

"It's important that we celebrate those larger-than-life people who make things really interesting," says Simmons, who worked for more than 10 years at legendary Bay Area free-form rock station KSAN and later for Graham's management company. "We were all very lucky to be involved in music and the production of shows when it was a slightly different thing that it is now. ... There are new people who have come up and we hope some of them will come see this and be inspired by it."

More than 150 items in the gallery show Graham at various points in his life, along with the places and people that shaped him: escaping Nazi Europe through France, Spain, and Portugal; staying at an orphanage in New York; growing up in the Bronx; coming to S.F. in the early '60s and getting involved with the S.F. Mime Troupe; and eventually going on to create the events that would help make S.F. a mecca for rock music.

Bill Graham - photo credit is Michelle Vignes.jpg
Michelle Vignes
Bill Graham at the Fillmore

Graham, of course, promoted the ballroom shows at venues like the Fillmore and the Avalon, where bands such as the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service explored a new, acid-soaked style of guitar music and psychedelic live shows. The exhibit focuses on posters, artwork, and photos from those years through the '70s and '80s, with a focus on Northern California artists and events. Much of the material was loaned for exhibit by his sons, David and Alex. Captions for the exhibit, which are quotes drawn from Graham's official biography, help narrate the story for viewers.

Simmons says she knows the promoter's legacy remains somewhat contested -- while his talent and influence are indisputable, he had a reputation for hotheadedness and what many have called ruthless business practices -- but she hopes people will see beyond that to Graham himself: "Whatever you may think, or have heard in stories about Bill ... he always made it a great priority that people have a good time."

The exhibit, presented by the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, opens tomorrow at the Jazz Heritage Center's Lush Life Gallery.

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I still, to this day, miss Bill Graham.

Jay Siegan
Jay Siegan

Looking forward to seeing this exhibit about #billgraham. He is the reason I got into events/music. A hero.

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