Bill Graham, the acid-tongued concert promoter who championed rock acts during San Francisco’s psychedelic era and went on to play a leading role in pop music’s emergence as a cultural force, died late Friday when a helicopter carrying him and two associates crashed into an electrical utility tower near Vallejo.
Graham, a Jewish war refugee who used his position as rock’s pre-eminent tour organizer to fund a succession of human rights causes, was 59.
Sonoma County sheriff’s spokesman Angela Rizzo said Graham’s helicopter rammed into the 200-foot tower shortly after 10:20 p.m., killing all three people aboard the craft. Authorities still had not positively identified the victims Saturday, but officials with Bill Graham Presents, the promoter’s Bay Area firm, said they included Graham, Melissa Gold, his longtime companion, and Steve Kahn, his pilot.
Graham was returning from a Huey Lewis and the News concert he had organized at the Concord Pavilion. The Bell helicopter was still tangled in the 115,000-volt tower structure Saturday morning. Damage to the tower forced the temporary closure of California 37 and cut off power to 24,000 homes in the Vallejo area.
Authorities said they had not yet determined whether the helicopter, which had been flying close to the ground, experienced any mechanical or navigation difficulties.
Bill Barsotti, an official with Graham’s company, said his productions would not be canceled by his death. “Over the last 25 years, Bill has run his company as a family, and his family is grieving now,” Barsotti said. “We all learned a great deal from him, and one thing we learned is that the show must go on.”
Graham pioneered or refined many concepts that have become standards in the music industry, including the promotion of national and worldwide rock tours, the reviving of old theaters as concert sites and the mass-merchandising of T-shirts and other memorabilia.
“I’m in the business to make money and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Graham once said. “But I also believe in giving the customers their money’s worth.”
He oversaw tours for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and organized charity events for Amnesty International and Bay Area earthquake relief. According to Barsotti, Graham planned to meet with Oakland officials Monday to organize a concert for victims of last week’s East Bay hill fire.
“His wealth of knowledge was enormous and he invented a lot of the systems that everyone now uses in this business,” said Andy Hewitt, a Los Angeles music promoter.
Born in Berlin in 1931 as Wolfgang Grajonca, Graham was raised in an orphanage after his father died. In 1940, Graham and 63 other orphans were stranded during a trip to Paris when German troops invaded. The children were taken by Red Cross officials on an arduous journey by boat to the United States. Graham was among 11 children who survived; he weighed 44 pounds by the time he reached New York. His mother died in a concentration camp.
Shedding his German accent and replacing it with the tough-guy Brooklynese rasp that served him later in film roles, Graham worked as a waiter in Catskills resorts before trying his luck as an actor. He was awarded a Bronze Star for Army service during the Korean War, and graduated from the City College of New York.
He found work in 1964 in San Francisco as business manager for a mime troupe. When troupe members were arrested on obscenity charges in 1965, Graham scrambled to put on a benefit dance, hiring an unknown band, the Jefferson Airplane, to perform. The benefit became a crucial event in San Francisco’s emergence as the hub of psychedelic music, leading Graham to rent the Fillmore Auditorium as a dance site. Graham staged the first “trips festival,” a light and sound show revolving around author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and their use of the hallucinogenic drug LSD.
The Fillmore and its sister ballroom in New York, the Fillmore East, were prime venues for rock music until the early 1970s, when they were shuttered by the rising popularity and expense of concert tours. Graham complained that the music industry was run by “second-rate promoters” who all groveled to a stereotypical superstar who wears “nine tons of beads, sings his nine hits, waves the peace sign (and) gets into his limousine.”
Graham continued to promote national tours--recently handling shows for the Grateful Dead--and solidified his hold over the music industry in Northern California. His only venue in the Los Angeles area is the Wiltern Theatre.
His high-profile image as a rock figure led him into film roles, including performances as a sleazy promoter in “Apocalypse Now” and mobster Lucky Luciano in the still-unreleased “Bugsy,” about the life of gangster Bugsy Siegel.
Graham promoted the Live Aid fund-raising concert for African drought relief and the 1986 “Crackdown on Crack” concert in New York. He was also the co-founder of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
He is survived by a son, David.
Staff writer Steve Hochman contributed to this story.