Chet Helms, 62; Concert Promoter in Bay Area During 1967’s ‘Summer of Love,’ Propelled Janis Joplin to Fame
Chet Helms, a concert promoter often called the father of the “Summer of Love” who plucked 23-year-old singer Janis Joplin out of Texas and ignited her brief career, has died. He was 62.
Helms died Saturday from complications after a stroke at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, said his wife, Judy Davis.
“He was a true believer and missionary for the transcendent lifestyle that we usually refer to as a hippie,” Dennis McNally, a historian for the Grateful Dead -- one of the bands Helms promoted -- told the Los Angeles Times on Monday. “He saw ballrooms in metaphysical terms.”
The beginning of 1967’s so-called Summer of Love, when the hippie movement was in full flower in San Francisco, can be traced to free concerts known as “Be-Ins” that Helms staged in Golden Gate Park.
The man who saw concerts as psychedelic celebrations may have stumbled into the music promotion business by accident when he began charging for entrance to jam sessions of Big Brother & the Holding Company, the band he managed and later asked Joplin to join.
Once people had to pay, even more showed up.
“He told me that charging legitimized it as a concert,” said Charles Perry, author of “The Haight-Ashbury: A History” (1984) and a writer and editor at The Times.
Helms was one of two great concert promoters in the 1960s in the Bay Area. The other was Bill Graham, and the two could not have been more different.
While Graham’s shows put the spotlight firmly on the musicians, the lights at Helms’ concerts were more likely to be psychedelic displays on the walls. Helms hated to charge admission; Graham was said to hate the idea of free concerts.
They staged three concerts together at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium before Graham went off on his own and turned the Fillmore into an important rock venue. Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991.
Helms continued producing concerts under the name Family Dog at the Avalon Ballroom, an old dance academy turned performing space. Doing business traditionally was not his strength.
“He had a huge comp list,” Perry said. “Whole communes were comped into the Avalon.”
Chester Leo Helms was born Aug. 2, 1942, in Santa Maria, Calif., the oldest of Chester and Novella Helms’ three sons. His father, who worked in a sugar beet mill, died when Chet Helms was 9, and his mother took the boys to Texas, where they were raised by their fundamentalist preacher grandfather.
After he dropped out of the University of Texas in 1961, Helms made his way to San Francisco and a boarding house in the Haight-Ashbury district that had a basement ballroom big enough to hold informal concerts.
As Big Brother & the Holding Company played there, he thought of his folk-singer friend back in Texas.
“He said, ‘You need this chick I know in Austin,’ ” McNally said. “The band went, ‘Right, right.’ He sent a friend of his to Austin to bring Janis out here, and the rest is history.”
The band with Joplin as the lead singer first performed at the Avalon Ballroom in June 1966, and the group immediately became one of the Bay Area’s leading attractions. Joplin and the band were a sensation with their “Cheap Thrills” album, featuring such hits as “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain.” Joplin left the band in 1968 and died two years later of a heroin overdose.
Big Brother & the Holding Company and others wouldn’t have made it without Helms, Barry Melton, the lead guitarist for Country Joe & the Fish, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Without Chet, there would be no Grateful Dead, no Big Brother & the Holding Company, no Jefferson Airplane, no Country Joe & the Fish, no Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the list goes on,” he said.
By 1970, Helms left the concert business but occasionally staged a festival. Most lost money. Still, one two-day concert in Monterey, Calif., in the 1980s was one of the first places the Clash played in the United States, McNally said.
From 1980 until he retired last year, Helms ran the Atelier Dore art gallery in San Francisco. In recent years, he also experimented with digital photography.
Besides his wife, Helms is survived by two brothers, John and Jim; and a stepdaughter, Sarah Davis.