Bill Graham 1931-1991
One of my favorite career stories and entrepreneur stories is that of the late Bill Graham, the concert industry mogul who died in a helicopter crash 20 years ago today. Although I never got to meet him, he’s the reason I moved to California from Chicago. I’ll tell you a brief version of his incredible story below and how his path helped to shape mine. For more detail, check out the video below, Bill’s wikipedia page and his amazing autobiography, Bill Graham Presents.
Bill was born in 1931 in Berlin after his family had emigrated there from Russia. Thanks to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, his family put him in an orphanage for protection. As things looked more dangerous for Jews, the orphanage transferred him to France. Once France was no longer safe, Bill was part of a group from the orphanage who escaped and went on a long, rough journey around the world that led him to New York City as his mother was being killed by Nazis in a concentration camp.
Bill was raised by a foster family in New York, where he learned English and studied the local accent so he could lose his own. He went to college, got a business degree, was drafted into the Korean War and was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. When he returned to the US, he was a waiter, poker player, cab driver, struggling actor and mambo dancer. His career didn’t really get started until his md-30s!
In his early 30s, Bill moved to San Francisco to be near a sister who had also escaped the Holocaust. The counter culture was blossoming and Bill wound up managing a popular mime troupe. Throwing a benefit concert for them led him to discovering a business opportunity: promoting great rock concerts for the arts-hungry scene. Bill wound up building a music empire and helping to create the concert industry as we know it today.
He played a big role in the careers of classic rock acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Bob Dylan, The Band, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones and the list goes on. His venues, the Fillmore East in New York and Fillmore West, Winterland and eventually Shoreline Amphitheater in San Fran hosted countless legendary concerts. As he took his work from clubs to stadiums to benefit concerts, his list of accomplishments and successes are staggering. It’s an amazing American Dream story accomplished by an immigrant who escaped the Holocaust and launched it all in his mid-30s.
How Bill Graham Changed My Life
As a kid watching MTV, I saw Bill running around on stage with a clip board at the massive benefit concert Live Aid, announcing the acts and directing the rock stars where to go and what to do on stage for the live telecast. The next year I saw him playing an even bigger role on MTV’s broadcast of the Amnesty International Concerts featuring U2 and more. I thought, “Who is this guy with the clipboard and the New York accent?! I want to do what he’s doing.” This was pre-internet, so I went to the library, researched him and was blown away by his story.
Fast forward to my starting college and having to choose a major. Working with a career counselor at University of Michigan helped me see the light that I should follow my passions and get on a path to the music industry. Inspired, I wrote Bill Graham a letter that night. It basically said “how can I do what you do” and “how can I one day work for you.” I’ll never forget how stunned I was a few weeks later when I received a reply! A great woman named Pat, who worked for Bill, had written me back saying that Bill appreciated my letter and that his top suggestions to me were business school or law school and to take lots of internships. He also said that some of his top people got there by working their way up from cleaning toilets…so there really wasn’t one clear path.
I saw the world differently that day. I learned that you could be proactive and make a difference. That you could reach out to a stranger and potentially get guidance. That you could go for whatever you want and make stuff happen. My goal was to follow every suggestion Bill gave, finish grad school and then go work for him and get him to mentor me. I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of my plan.
I became an English major and went to law school because my inability to get through Econ 101 ruled out Michigan’s undergrad business program! During my summers, I interned in Los Angeles and New York in the music industry. Everything was going according to plan…and then I got a call at 6am one day from a friend who saw on MTV News that Bill’s helicopter had just crashed on a flight home from a concert and he was killed. I spent the day crying like I’d just lost a parent.
I wrote Pat a letter expressing my condolences. In return, she shipped me the poster that you see over my shoulder in most videos on Careers Out There. “Laughter Love & Music” was a free memorial concert for Bill that took place in Golden Gate Park featuring bands who wanted to thank him for his role in their careers: Grateful Dead, Journey, Santana, CSNY, Jackson Browne, John Fogerty, Tracy Chapman and more. That poster has stayed on my walls for 20 years.
Fast forward to my finally finishing school and the Bar exam. A band I wanted to manage that I’d discovered during an internship had just moved to San Francisco. I wrote Pat to see if I could work for Bill’s company (even though he was gone) and manage the band on the side, but she replied that they weren’t currently hiring. I decided to pack up my car and drive from Chicago to San Francisco to see if the answer would be any different face-to-face!
Alone for breakfast at Denny’s in San Francisco before my meeting with Pat, I was reading the new issue of Rolling Stone with the Smashing Pumpkins on the cover. In mid-meal, the Denny’s hostess sat the Smashing Pumpkins at the table next to me – they happened to be in town to play the Fillmore! I took this as a sign of good luck.
I walked in to Bill Graham Presents and told Pat “I’m here!” She connected me that morning to a great guy named Morty who had been mentored by Bill and climbed his way to success at the company from the very bottom. We hit it off and he offered me a summer internship. Yes, I was now a lawyer working as an intern for 3 months! On the last day of the internship, a woman there I’d become friendly with known as the Ticket Queen asked me if I’d like to be hired to go on tour with the Rolling Stones!
The next thing I knew, I was on a flight to Chicago, staying at the Four Seasons and riding giant vans with tinted windows by police escort into the backstage of Soldier Field where we had dinner with the Stones in their private lounge. The job didn’t pay a lot and would only last as long as the US tour, but I can’t imagine a better first job after school, a better way to enter the real world or a better way to make my teenage rock and roll dreams come to life by the age of 25. I’ve held much higher level jobs and made much more money than what that position offered, but nothing has ever come close to matching the fun and excitement of that experience.
Much thanks of course to Pat, the Ticket Queen, Morty, the career counselor and my parents but I thank Bill for the incredible inspiration. I hope his story lives on, inspires other music fans and aspiring entrepreneurs and is appreciated by those growing up in the corporate climate that is today’s concert industry. RIP, Bill Graham.
P.S. The people at Wolfgang’s Vault (Bill’s childhood nickname) are kind enough to allow me to show the “Laughter Love & Music” poster in my videos. You can support them by clicking here to buy that poster. (I do not profit from that link).