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Rock impresario Bill Graham gets first major career exhibition

Concert promoter Bill Graham's career will be explored in an exhibition at Skirball Cultural Center in May

The life and career of rock promoter Bill Graham will be explored in depth in an exhibition coming to the Skirball Cultural Center in May and running through Oct. 11.

Graham was a central figure in the evolution of rock music’s path out of clubs and small theaters into massive sports arenas and stadiums, and he also helped pave the way for musicians using their fame to help social and political causes through large-scale benefit concerts.

“Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” is slated to open May 7, and will cover the best-known facets of his life — the concerts and careers he promoted with artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and numerous others — as well as his early life as a Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. to escape Nazi Germany.

The show will include memorabilia such as the psychedelic-art concert posters that became an iconic part of the shows he promoted while based in San Francisco during the flowering of the hippie era and psychedelic music scene. In addition, the exhibition will gather photographs, concert footage, vintage and new video interviews, and the original apple barrel that stood at the entrance to San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium for countless concerts Graham promoted at the venue.

Bill Graham Presents became one of the most prolific and respected concert promotion firms in the music industry through the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s until his death in 1991 in a helicopter crash. Graham had a hand in putting on the Live Aid global famine relief concert in 1985 and the Human Rights Now! tour in 1988 to highlight and protest human rights abuses around the world.

When Graham died, Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote, “More than the death of anyone in rock 'n' roll since John Lennon in 1980, the loss of Bill Graham on Friday night in a helicopter crash near Vallejo represents the end of another era.

“In the narrowest of terms, Graham was the nation's most celebrated rock promoter — a man who staged concerts or entire tours over the past 2 1/2 decades for such major attractions as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and U2.

“In the widest sense, however,”  Hilburn continued, “Graham was also a conscience and activist in rock — a man whose name was linked not only to most of the music's great names but also to its grandest causes, from the landmark Live Aid benefit concerts in 1985 to the worldwide Amnesty International tour of 1988.”

The exhibition coincides with other activities coming this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the forming of the Grateful Dead, a group that Graham also managed.

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