Bill Graham was the most prominent and successful music entrepreneur of the late 20th century. Entering the music business at the age of 35, his involvement with music developed from founding San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium to staging national tours with the Rolling Stones and managing artists such as Bob Dylan and Santana. Among his accomplishments he organized the historic Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in 1985, which featured a galaxy of rock stars. Sadly he died in a helicopter crash in 1991 leaving a concert. He is being remembered with a retrospective exhibition in Los Angeles, “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution.”
I interviewed Bill in 1985 on Maui, right before Live Aid. Here are some excerpts.
On large concerts. “I don’t really like them. I liked them in the early days, when people went there to be with others, and the names were not so important. You could say but Bill, you’re a hypocrite because you still put them on, but if I don’t, someone else will. Musicians, when they’re first making it say, ‘I will never play these big places, but when you make it, you want more time with your loved ones, so to maximize your draw and minimize your effort, the solution is a longer distance between the microphone and the last fan.”
On the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert (where a man was killed by the Hells Angels). “I get aggravated and feel insulted by the use and abuse of Altamont as an example. Millions of people go to shows and there’s Altamont. Two weeks after the show, there was a car race and 14 people were killed. The way it happened was shameful, at the end of the tour a famous group said, let’s toss something out there. Mick (Jagger) and I didn’t talk for a while. Their production manager asked me to get involved (before the concert), but I said it was too quick and you’re out in San Jose somewhere. You can’t do that. I didn’t want to get involved, but I gave my tech guys to help them. Afterwards I was very angry. I said it was equivalent to Billy Graham putting on a gold lame jumpsuit, getting into a helicopter and dropping one live chicken over Biafra.”
What’s Mick Jagger like to work with? “He’s probably as professional as anyone you can find in rock ‘n roll. There was never a show that he wasn’t there an hour in advance and he’s very disciplined, and he ran me up and down the hills of Massachusetts during rehearsals. Mick is also a great PR man. Generally there’s a good sense of humor with the Stones. I remember the first day in Philadelphia. I’m half jokingly walking through the dressing rooms saying, 20 minutes folks, and just as I pass Keith’s room, where he’s putting lime juice in his hair, he wheels round and shouts, ‘what did you say?’ I replied, whenever you’re ready baby.”
Looking back at the old Fillmore days do you have a favorite memory? “I asked the white blues guys – (Mike) Bloomfield, (Paul) Butterfield and local guys like Jerry Garcia – where they got this stuff from, and they would mention artists like Albert King and B.B. King and Luther Tucker, whom most white rock fans didn’t know at the time. One of the joys in the early days was to bring in these guys on the bill. It was like you think Eric Clapton’s great, well Eric thinks Muddy Waters is great. I went to Missouri to get Chuck Berry, because the Fillmore began to get this, that’s the psychedelic place, and these artists didn’t want to come.
“So we had shows like the Grateful Dead and Miles Davis, and the Who and Woody Herman. The first time Jimi Hendrix came to San Francisco, he was opening for the Jefferson Airplane, and after the first night, the Airplane said, please let him close the show, because they didn’t want to follow Jimi Hendrix. By far the most electrifying artist was Otis Redding. I went to Macon, Georgia, to talk to him and when he played, every major musician in San Francisco not only came, but they came early. I’ve never seen anything comparable to this day. I remember Janice (Joplin) came at three in the afternoon, and she ran right up in front of the stage. He was a giant of giants.
“Then I remember one concert, it was the birth of the 20 minute drum solo and there was this one British group that played the most boring drum solo. I got this mad scheme, flew to Las Vegas and convinced Buddy Rich to play the middle act at this concert. He came out and played this devastating drumming and afterwards I went into the name band’s dressing room, put my hand on the drummer’s shoulder and said, I can’t wait for your solo tonight baby. That was the end of his solo.”