Working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore…

Working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore…

In the summer of 1966 I was nineteen years old and living at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill in North Beach.  Most days I’d go the Fillmore to work on my boards.  I would take two buses and usually be there by eleven.  

   Bonnie MacLean, who lived with Bill Graham at this time, was a proper artist and had told me where to go for my supplies.  There was a fantastic art supply store down on Sutter not far from Union Square called Flax.  They sold everything anyone could want for graphic design or painting.  It soon became a regular stop for me but for now I simply needed some coloured acrylic paints, two brushes, a sketch pad and some white chalk.

   My first job was to paint over the previous week’s board in black acrylic and while it dried I made a pencil sketch of my next design.  The information had to be readable but colourful with the headline artist bigger than anything else.  As I did this I’d be shooting the breeze with whoever was there.  Often it was Bonnie or maybe Jim Haynie.  Marty Balin was sometimes around if Jefferson Airplane were rehearsing there.  

   As I doodled away on my sketch pad, I would hear Bill Graham’s loud voice doing battle on the phone in his little office above the staircase.  If he wasn’t getting what he wanted from the other person he would yell at them sometimes erupting like a volcano.  With all the passion of a grand opera he would bellow down the mouthpiece:  “What are you trying to do, kill me?”  Once such a tirade began, it would build and he wouldn’t stop except to take a breath.  At moments like these he would say things like: “You’re bringing my headache on early today.”

   Bill was not the kind to shut the door and whisper down the phone.  I heard almost every word as I worked, very slowly, on my next design.  Although I didn’t know the background details to the conversations I was hearing, the mimic in me was taking in everything he said and the way he said it.  His Bronx accent was very distinct and the way he said “dollar” was unlike anything I had heard before.

   “You’re telling me this group is worth a thousand dollahs?  Is that what you’re telling me?  You must think I just got off the bus.”

   Although my father Blackie was born and raised in Brooklyn he did not speak with a Brooklyn accent.  It could be that his life as a sailor had softened his speech patterns.  In fact he would often amuse Tommy Harper and I when he’d break into his true native accent.  He always said that people from Brooklyn didn’t talk, they sang:  “Whaddyawannadootoodaygotoodapitchas?”

   So once I was happy with my design I would begin doodling with chalk on the freshly blacked over board as the cabaret of Bill doing business played on.  Jim Haynie was kind of his right hand man.  Jim had been a performer in the Mime Troupe and went on to be a successful actor in Hollywood films.  The atmosphere at the Fillmore was friendly thanks in large part to Jim and Bonnie.

   Although I was living with my parents in the city I would spend as much of my social time as I could with friends in Mill Valley.  My mode of transport was hitch hiking and it never took me long, standing on Lombard Street with my thumb out, to get across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Before long I’d be getting out of a car somewhere on Miller Avenue.

   Augie Belden’s mother Mary had moved from her apartment on Una Way to a small house just off Sunnyside.  My circle of friends was a bit more diverse than it had been in high school because I had passed through the portal of getting high.

   Most of my friends either had jobs or were at college but the common ground was getting loaded, listening to music and talking.  In these smoky sessions I often found myself performing word perfect impersonations of Bill.  He had truly invaded my soul.  On one occasion I was playing Monopoly and became Bill Graham.  Naturally I won the game.

   But such performances occurred only in intimate settings.  Out in the big world I was not a performer at all, but a shy nineteen year old who walked around with his hands in his pockets.

   At this time my favourite LP was Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and songs like I Want You and Memphis Blues Again were constantly going through my head as was the latest single by the Beatles: Paperback Writer.  

   I also listened to the radio which at this time was KFRC.  They played a mix of Beatles, Stones and Dylan along with more mainstream music like Alfie by Cher as well as black soul music.  The Supremes, Temptations and Four Tops were played along with Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine. 

   As far as I could make out, Bill Graham seemed to have no interest in or knowledge of any of these artists.  He was of an older generation and didn’t know much about the popular music which had developed in the wake of the Beatles’ arrival on these shores. He had no concept of the powerful significance an artist like Bob Dylan had for my generation.  Or the Beatles or the Stones.  These artists were put on a pedestal by people of my age.  

   And yet here he was booking acts for his shows and sometimes he had no idea of what he was going to get. 

He was familiar with bands he knew like the Airplane, The Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service but they were all the product of influences which were outside of Bill’s comprehension.

   The Airplane, which had a single, Come Up The Years, on KFRC at that time, were a product of the fusion between folk music and rock.   Bill loved Latin music and in his younger years was quite a dancer.

   There were certain details of the lead-up to that time which I simply didn’t know about.  I understood that Bill had stumbled onto the hippy rock scene by putting on benefits for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theatre company that he managed, but the details were more complicated than that.

   Because he knew nothing about the rock music scene when he secured the lease on the Fillmore, Bill formed a partnership with two local band managers: Chet Helms (Big Brother and the Holding Company) and John Carpenter (The Great Society).  They would put on shows at the Fillmore on alternate weekends to Bill.  The two named their company The Family Dog.

   One hugely successful show at the Fillmore was a weekend dance/concert with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band which had been heavily promoted in the Haight district by Helms and Carpenter.  Most hippies hadn’t heard of Butterfield but the two Family Dog guys managed to convince a great mass of them that to miss the gigs was synonymous with being unhip.  The Fillmore was a full house for the entire weekend.

   Bill was very impressed with the reception the band received and the money made at the packed events.  In fact Bill was so impressed that he got up early the morning after the last gig and phoned the Butterfield manager Albert Grossman in New York.  Graham managed to negotiate an exclusive deal for himself to present all future bay area dates for the Butterfield band.

   When Helms and Carpenter discovered what Bill had done they were furious and dissolved their partnership with him.  They went off to find the Avalon Ballroom on the other side of Van Ness for all future Family Dog shows.  

   This story was the reason I heard Bill say on the phone so many times: “What Chet doesn’t understand is that you have to get up in the morning.”

   By the time I arrived, the Avalon Ballroom was Graham’s main competitor.  The reality was that Helms and Carpenter were hippies and very much part of the growing scene in Haight Ashbury.  Bill, however was not a hippy and was all business.  The reason he was behind his desk early in the morning on weekdays was to get the New York agents on the phone first thing.  As they were three hours ahead of San Francisco, he didn’t want to risk losing out on a hot act.    

   Also he was learning about the bands he was booking.  Bill was considerably older than his audience and really didn’t know much about the artists.  So the New York agents would often try to sell him any old thing.  He was, however, a very shrewd fellow and never made the same mistake twice.

    One big story in the Chronicle that summer was that the Beatles made a rapid exit from Manila in the Philippines after their snub of the first lady Imelda Marcos led to near riots.  They obviously hadn’t appreciated the significance of not turning up for tea with the dictator’s wife.  Dramatic photos in the Chronicle showed the shaken four boarding a plane with manager Brian Epstein as huge crowds shouted angrily at them.  But none of this information ever came up with Bill.  He was too busy haggling with agents and those he had to pay money to.

   One of these people on the other end of the phone line was the guy who sold advertising time on radio KFRC.  Bill started paying for spots which the disc jockeys would read out, sometimes in a very rushed and haphazard manner.  This was at the time that the station was busily promoting their huge Rolling Stones concert at the Cow Palace and clearly this show was getting more airtime then Bill’s little ads for the Fillmore.    

   Their big hit the previous year, Satisfaction, had made the Stones a big concert draw and KFRC were throwing everything they had at this show.  They ran a contest called ‘Phone a Stone’ in which listeners would call in, stating which member of the group they’d like to hear speak.  They had pre-recorded individual statements from each band member:  “Hello San Francisco. This is Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones. See you at the KFRC concert on the 26th of July.”  If the caller guessed the correct Stone they’d win a pair of tickets.  If not they’d get a free album.

   Every time the disc jockeys spoke they’d plug the concert.  “It’s 10.26 KFRC Phone a Stone time.”  They also had a jingle using Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 in which they sang: “Everybody must play Phone A Stone!”

   “What you’re doing with these f—ing Rolling Stones is immoral!” Bill shouted over the phone.  “The rest of us who are paying good money for your airtime are being shunted into the corner.  It’s immoral!”

   By the end of the decade Bill would be putting on Rolling Stones concerts himself but for now he was just a guy shouting into a telephone in the tiny office at the top of the stairs at the Fillmore Auditorium.

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

8 thoughts on “Working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore…”

  1. Sounds just like I remember Bill … in the early days,,, mr grumpy
    I thought the house off sunny side was Grey Rutledge’s house… of course my memory isn’t the best!!!
    Great wringing Johnny!!! I wondered how you led up to getting that poster gig.. do you still have any posters you did?? I had a stack of them I left at moms when I left the nest … when I came to retrieve them , mother had thrown them away…. I was devastated…. I had enough posters to wall paper my entire room including the ceiling… which is what I had done…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No I’m pretty sure it belonged to Mary and Augie though I do remember Grey being there a lot. Maybe he lived on the same street. If you’re up to reading any more of my drivel I tell about getting my first job with Bill in ‘The Times They Were A’Changin’ parts 5 and 6. Thanks Laurie. You’re a pal. xx

      Liked by 1 person

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