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The Self-Made Man: Bill Graham

The great Bill Graham

So apparently there were a lot of noteworthy people named Bill Graham. Too many, actually. So far I’ve counted three boxers, one professional wrestler, two politicians (one Canadian, one Australian), an evangelist who loved Richard Nixon, and a jazz saxophonist, among others. Consequently, it took a minute for me to come with anything about the Bill Graham whose entrepreneurial accomplishments jive with TSB’s definition of self made men. The Bill Graham I’m talking about was the legendary concert promoter who introduced a lot of countercultural music to wider audiences throughout the 1960s, and who became the first concert promoter to achieve celebrity status in his own right.

One more comment about names, though ? Bill Graham wasn’t actually his real one. He was born Wolodia Grajonca, and changed his name to Bill Graham after emigrating to the States from his native Germany, where the Nazis were taking over and exterminating Jewish families like his (Graham’s mother was killed in Auschwitz). Once in America, Graham wisely took on a more American name, not knowing that about a bajillion other people of renown would have the same name at various points throughout history.

Anyway, Graham grew up thinking he would become a businessman, but he ended up managing the San Francisco Mime Troupe (it was the 1960s, don’t judge), and successfully put together a benefit concert to raise legal fees for them when one of the mimes got locked up on obscenity charges. Graham was a born promoter, as it turned out, so he eventually went into concert promotion full-time and homesteaded San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium throughout the 1960s. He also booked shows at a second Fillmore location in New York and the Winterland, also in San Francisco.

In addition to his networking skills, Graham was a keen appraiser of talent, and he was an early supporter and mentor of bands like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, Frank Zappa, and the Grateful Dead. He was also tight with the Rolling Stones, and promoted a lot of tours for them in the 1970s and 1980s. His promotional abilities played a vital role in the success of those bands (well, aside from the Stones), and of the now-legendary artists and designers Graham hired to design posters and lighting effects for his concerts. Graham was also the first American concert promoter to have medical personnel on site for larger shows, and often organized huge benefit concerts as fundraisers for social and political causes, the 1985 Live Aid concert being just one example.

Self made men are persistent and industrious as a rule, and Graham was no exception. I mean, if he was lazy and/or sane, he picked the wrong line of work: promoting anything longterm is a grind. Concert promoters have a lot of responsibilities; not only do they have to arrange performance dates with a band’s management, they also book the venues, negotiate with vendors, and put together enough upfront cash to pay for advertising, which is a huge financial risk that requires finding sponsors and knowing the ins and outs of their operating markets and audience characteristics.

Any reasonable person’s head would explode trying to manage all that, but Graham did it for decades, and did it so well that he made himself both rich and famous. A certain amount of that is natural charisma and luck, but there’s an awful lot of hard work in there too, and Graham wasn’t exactly born into the kind of money that would give him a head start in the business. Hell, he wasn’t even adopted into that kind of money.

Since Bill also produced concert films, I’ll leave you with this video of his grand entrance at a Grateful Dead show in Oakland.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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