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Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution Comes to Chicago

“The streets were never full of flowers.” -Bill Graham, Fillmore: The Last Days


Visual and auditory introduction to Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution

The 1960s promoted revolution, rebellion, and radicalism. This decade also produced some of the greatest music of the 20th century. However, much of this music would not have been created, documented, or promoted were it not for Bill Graham. Born in Berlin in 1931 and a survivor of the Holocaust, Graham emigrated to America and was responsible for the rise of the Fillmore, an iconic music venue in San Francisco that hosted memorable performances by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, amongst others. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is currently hosting an exhibit dedicated to Graham called Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution. The exhibit features original festival posters, outfits and instruments owned by some of the most important artists of the ’60s and ’70s, and never before seen photos of Graham and his favorite musicians.


Original posters of Bill Graham’s promotions in the 1960s

Bill Graham was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin in 1931 before the rise of Nazism. As Hitler’s influence grew, members of the Hitler Youth Movement tried to recruit Graham, and his mother put him in a home for Jewish children to keep him safe. But, as it became increasingly clear that Hitler’s power was going to envelop the country, his mother sent him to France in 1939. That was the last time Graham saw his mother; she died on a train bound for Auschwitz. Bill was eventually put on a boat for the United States and arrived in 1941, suffering from a number of health problems. He spent his childhood in a foster home in the Bronx and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. After obtaining a business degree from City College, Graham served in the Korean War in 1951. He was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his efforts in the US Army.

In the ’60s, Graham lived in San Francisco and started putting on small shows at the Fillmore. Aided by the support of Charles Sullivan, Graham was able to successfully promote and feature bigger and bigger acts. After meeting Jerry Garcia in 1966 while the guitarist was high on LSD, the two formed a friendship that would last for decades. The Grateful Dead became a staple of Bill Graham’s shows, frequently headlining the Fillmore and other Graham-promoted shows. Alongside the Dead, Graham helped launch some of rock’s biggest names into the stratosphere, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana. The exhibit features pieces of memorabilia from all of these artists, including a full outfit that Hendrix wore in the late ’60s and Joplin’s microphone and tambourine from the Fillmore.


Jimi Hendrix’s outfit from 1968 and 1970

Graham closed the Fillmore and Fillmore East in 1971 but continued to be one of America’s most important promoters and managers. Eventually, Graham moved all of his Fillmore shows to the Winterland Ballroom, a former ice skating arena in San Francisco. He brought a number of new and exciting acts to the venue, including Bruce Springsteen and KISS. His over-the-top New Year’s Eve shows at the ballroom became the party to attend. In 1976, Graham hosted Bob Dylan and The Band’s last show at the Winterland, The Last Waltz.  Graham insisted that the concert be filmed. It was directed by Martin Scorcese and became the iconic film, The Last Waltz one of the most watched concert productions in history. The Winterland closed in 1978 with one final performance from Graham’s favorites, The Grateful Dead.

Perhaps one of Graham’s biggest contributions was the promotion and development of Live Aid. At the time, charity concerts weren’t really popular, but with the rise of the AIDS epidemic and increasing poverty in Africa, Graham and Bob Geldof worked hard to create one of the biggest concerts the world had ever seen. Simultaneously conducting shows in London and Philadelphia, Live Aid was broadcast in over 110 countries and featured incredible performances by The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Queen. Graham went on to host charity concerts for Amnesty International and Concert for Peace, both of which were wildly successful.


Photos and artifacts from Live Aid

Following Graham’s untimely death in 1991, a memorial concert was  staged in San Francisco, with an estimated 350,000-500,000 people in attendance. “It was the first time in history that so many people had turned out for a man who played no instrument, could not really sing and had not written a word to any song.” Graham’s legacy has stood the test of time, proving that his influence on music will never fade away.

Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution will be on exhibit until November 12 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie. Purchase tickets to the exhibit HERE.

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