Classic Rock Review

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Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield (1992)


Review Bill Graham is the rock promoter most famous for operating the leading rock and roll theatres of the late sixties and early seventies, including the original Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco, the Fillmore East in New York, and the Fillmore West, (a different building in San Francisco.)

The Fillmore period was sort of a golden age of rock and roll. Graham was able to present virtually all the cutting edge bands of the time, including some acts, like Santana and the Allman Brothers, before they even had their first record out. Rock and roll shows had never received the kind of attention to detail and respect for performers and audiences that Graham brought to the Fillmore’s. Graham presented a variety of music, including blues and jazz, although the headliners were almost always top draw rock and roll acts.

Many artists took advantage of the Fillmore’s reputation to record live albums there. In fact, according to this book, 58 albums were recorded at the Fillmore’s and 17 of them were certified gold. The Fillmore’s also became gathering places for the music industry. Graham was more than just a first hand witness to this era, he helped to create it. The Fillmore sections of this book are a fascinating examination of how the Fillmore came into existence, how the musicians felt about playing for Bill Graham, how the booking policy of the Fillmore evolved, and finally why Graham closed the Fillmore’s at the peak of the their success.

In addition to Graham’s own memories, there are memories of his contemporaries as well which round out the story. Italics are overused in attempt to make the writing sound like a transcription of someone talking, but this is only a minor irritation. Consider the following quote from Pete Townsend which is taken from the book: “(Graham) gave us dignity. We felt we weren’t the pop plebes we had been when we went out with Herman’s Hermits and we were told to shut up and get in the back of the bus. We were dignified people. We were artists.”

Graham’s opinions are fun to read. Who was the best act he ever saw? (Otis Redding) Who was the biggest pain in the neck? (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).

Of secondary importance, but still fascinating, an added bonus really, are Graham’s memories of his childhood escape from Nazi Germany. Most biographies are boring when the subject’s childhood is discussed, but in this case, Graham’s family was broken up during the Nazi era. Graham was a small boy and the only member of his family to escape to the United States. He was reunited with his surviving sisters after the war.

Review As a theatre venue manager and talent promoter for the past twenty years, I’ve always known Bill Graham as the most recognizable face in our business, but it was only when I read this book that I came to understand what a trailblazer and true impresario he was. A truly complicated, conflicted, and not always role-model quality man, Graham was a genius at making the concert experience something more than just people listening to music, which is something we sorely miss in the concert business now. The early story of his flight from Nazi Germany is just icing on the cake.

I actually bought eight copies of this book and distributed them to my staff. That’s how valuable I thought this book was for anyone associated with making theatre-goers happy. It’s also a great general read, because the story is gripping no matter what.

Not everyone loved Bill Graham, and for good reason, but the legacy he left (even though we’ve managed to bury it in the past ten years) is a rich one that we can all continue to be inspired by.

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Book Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield | , , | Leave a comment