Bill Graham Presents: himself.
In a first for the legendary concert promoter, a major museum retrospective opening Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center will delve into the life and times of the man who helped to hatch the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco.
From the 1960s through the ‘80s, the words “Bill Graham Presents” on psychedelic posters became synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll history in the making. That history — so crucial to the fabric of current musical pop culture — is told through more than 400 objects related to Graham’s rise from child survivor of the Holocaust to arguably the most famous music promoter of all time. The exhibition “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” includes Jerry Garcia’s beloved “Wolf” guitar, Joplin’s tambourine and microphone from a Fillmore East show in New York, and Keith Richards’ leather boots, repaired by Graham with duct tape during a 1981 tour.
The Skirball also has dozens of original concert posters; a collection of live performance and backstage photographs showing the likes of Eric Clapton, the Clash, Mick Fleetwood, Tina Turner, the Sex Pistols and Aretha Franklin; an audio guide in which Graham recollects anecdotes about the artists with whom he worked; and a site-specific installation of the famous liquid “Joshua Light Show,” originally created by multimedia artist Joshua White and often used as a backdrop for Graham-produced shows.
“Bill was all about theater and creating drama and giving people what he thought they needed, not what they wanted,” curator Erin Clancey said during a sneak peek of the exhibition. Although Graham gave many rock bands their start, Clancey said, he also wanted to educate his audience by exposing them to great R&B, blues and jazz acts like Bo Diddley and Otis Redding.
“He would also book poets, writers and comedians,” Clancey said. “Once he hired Russian folk dancers.”
Graham was born Wulf Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin in 1931. His mother placed him and his youngest sister in an orphanage to protect them from the rising threat to Jews by the Third Reich. The children were shipped off to France, and when that country fell to the Nazis, Graham was among the children who made it to America. His sister died during the journey. His mother died in Auschwitz.
He was placed in a foster home in the Bronx and changed his name, picking Graham out of the phone book. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s to be closer to his older sister, Rita, who came to the United States after the war. He wanted to become an actor and was attracted to performers. When San Francisco’s parks department prevented a radical theater group called the San Francisco Mime Troupe from performing on city land, citing obscenity, Graham produced a benefit concert to cover legal costs.
The show was a hit, and Graham saw his future path, eventually securing a contract for open dates at the Fillmore.
“There was a lot more to Bill than the Fillmore and Winterland [where Graham produced subsequent shows] and associations with the whole pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll in that era,” said Skirball museum director Rabbi Robert Kirschner, who presided over Graham’s memorial after he died with girlfriend Melissa Gold in a helicopter crash in 1991. “He was also a visionary. He basically invented the whole idea of ‘rock theater,’ where you went to a concert for an immersion experience.”
Graham benefited from being at the right place at the right time — the nexus of a counterculture movement driven by rock music and fed by the raw talent of artists who rose together. But his success can be credited to his dogged work ethic, legendary temper and unparalleled ability to micromanage every detail of an event, including the cleanliness of the bathrooms.
“He was a polarizing guy, but he had a huge heart and was very compassionate,” Clancey said, pointing out that once Graham had established himself, he spent much of his time promoting large benefit concerts, including the U.S. portion of Live Aid to fund famine relief efforts in Ethiopia in 1985. The crash that killed him occurred after a visit with singer Huey Lewis, whom Graham had enlisted to perform in a benefit for victims of the 1991 Oakland Hills wildfire.
Graham knew about the devastating effects of fire. His San Francisco offices were firebombed in 1985 after he had organized protests against a planned visit by President Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, where dozens of SS officers were interred. A melted telephone and eyeglasses and a burned menorah from the firebombing are on display in the exhibition, which is organized according to chapters in Graham’s life.
Perhaps the most meaningful item in the exhibition, Kirschner said, is the original apple barrel that greeted guests at the Fillmore with a sign that read, “Take One or Two.” Concertgoers came to expect the barrel over the years, but nobody seemed to know why it was there.
The Skirball discovered the answer while researching the show. When Graham was in the French orphanage, he and another child were sent to a neighboring apple orchard to pilfer fruit to feed their hungry friends. It was an experience Graham carried with him his whole life.
“You learn how deep a person’s roots go and how powerful memory can be,” Kirschner said. “And he was able to turn that into something positive and generous.”
‘Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution’
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Thursday through Oct. 11
Admission: $5 to $10; free on Thursdays
Info: (310) 440-4500, www.skirball.org