Rock & Roll Revolution: Bill Graham Exhibit Explores Life And Legacy Of Legendary San Francisco Concert Promoter

Bill Graham was many things to many people. To his friends, he was “Uncle Bobo.” To his critics, he could be a gruff and unyielding tyrant. Love him or not, no one can dispute the fact that the man formerly known as Wolodia Grajonca changed the face of music promotion forever.

On March 16, a much-anticipated event took place at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit made its Northern California debut for museum members, sponsors, and a special circle of friends. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir played for the invitation-only crowd. The display of photos, film, and rock memorabilia, which recently completed a five-month run in Los Angeles, opens to the public today.

The multimedia exhibition documents and celebrates the life and times of a man revered throughout the world of rock ‘n’ roll as one of its most successful and influential promoters. Bill Graham, who perished in a helicopter crash on a rainy night in 1991, founded the Fillmore, Fillmore West, and Fillmore East dance halls in the 1960s and converted a San Francisco ice skating rink called Winterland into a ballroom, giving bands such as Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead organized, well-managed spaces in which to perform.

By the early 1970s, the Fillmores were closed, but Bill Graham continued to host notable concerts until his untimely demise. According to the New York Times, Bill Graham hosted numerous concerts by name acts, including the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, the Doors, and the Who.

Who guitarist Pete Townshend said the following about Bill Graham.

“Bill changed the way rock evolved. Without him, I would not be here. His Fillmore ballroom promotions provided a model for halls around the world in which audiences would sit, listen and applaud, as well as scream or dance. Rock became music in that process.”

In addition to an extensive visual display about rock’s grandest impresario, the museum will host afternoon chats on select Fridays throughout the run of the exhibition.

Bill Graham talked about 'slowing down' in 1982
On March 18, Graham biographer Bob Greenfield will speak about Bill’s participation in the international outcry against then-president Ronald Reagan’s public pilgrimage to Kolmeshöhe Military Cemetery near Bitburg, Germany in 1985. Greenfield will also relate a story about the subsequent bombing of Bill Graham Presents headquarters that same year.

On April 1, the Friday chat will feature Velina Brown of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The award-winning actress will talk about Bill Graham’s association with the politically savvy performance group. On April 15, BGP Creative Director Arlene Owseichik will share stories about the poster artists whose graphics skills helped to form the Fillmore’s everlasting legend.

On April 29, museum visitors will be treated to a chat by Dr. Vitka Eisen about the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic and Graham’s crucial role in the establishment of Rock Medicine; a team of doctors, nurses and paramedics that provides free, “non judgemental” crisis health care at concerts and other events. The first Rock Med tent was staffed at the request of Graham and offered medical assistance to attendees at Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin concerts in 1972, according to the Rock Medicine website.

On May 13, rock photographer Michael Zagaris will share the stories behind some of his most iconic Fillmore images. On Friday, June 3, Rabbi Langer of Chabad of San Francisco will give a talk about how Graham helped to facilitate the 20-foot menorah that illuminates Union Square during Hanukkah season.

Each Friday chat is expected to last 90 minutes and is free with museum admission.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum sits at 736 Mission Street between Third and Fourth Streets in San Francisco. The museum opens at 11 a.m. daily except on Wednesdays when the venue is dark. According to ABC7 News, The Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit will remain in the City through July 5. The traveling exhibit will then appear at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia from September to January. In July 2017, the traveling archive opens at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Illinois, for a five-month run. Additional venues may be announced.

[Photo via Lennox McLendon /AP Images]