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  • Paula Tiberius

Bill Graham & The Rock & Roll Revolution @ The Skirball

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Bill Graham was a rock promoter and social activist whose career highlights include launching some of the most famous rock bands in music history and creating mega-events for social change like Human Rights Now! and the American leg of Live Aid. He was also an actor, most famously playing the role of the Hollywood agent in Apocalypse Now.

Until October 11th you can see a beautifully curated show honoring his life’s work and legacy at the Skirball Center in West L.A.

Bill Graham 5

After escaping Nazi Germany, Graham (born Wulf Grajonca) landed in New York and then headed to San Fransisco just in time to connect with the crazy hippie action in the 1960’s. He began booking the radical theater group, the San Fransisco Mime Troupe, and gave a stage to many civil rights and farm worker defenders. Then he began booking the famous Fillmore Auditorium with up and coming bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Allman Brothers and more.

Graham’s then wife Bonnie MacLean and many other artists created a unique poster art style that took Art Nouveau on a psychedelic trip. These posters are such a famous part of rock and roll history that it really took my breath away to see so many original printings, and even many of the originals themselves complete with brushstrokes and pencil markings. For the Skirball show, MacLean, Randy Tuten and David Singer were chosen to create new posters in the Fillmore style, and then the curator paired each artists new work with vintage posters from the 60’s era. It’s worth going to the show for the posters alone. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but here a few I found on the Internet by MacLean – the first one is in the show.

Bill Graham 3 - Bonnie McLean poster
Bill Graham 4 - Bonnie McLean poster

Again, no pics allowed, but here are a few from the exhibit by Baron Wolman that are on the Skirball site.

Bill Graham - Jimi Hendrix by Baron Wolman
Bill Graham - Little Richard by Baron Wolman
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I broke the rules to take this picture below from the theater room they had set up to show the original performances by The Joshua Light Show which featured three film projectors, two banks of four-carousel slide projectors, three overhead projectors, hundreds of color wheels, watercolor paints, crystals, mirrors – you name it, these crazy people were projecting it onto the screen behind everyone from Chuck Berry to The Who.

Bill Graham 7

Michael also broke the rules, to take a picture of Keith Richards’s boots from the 80’s – they’re all bound with duct tape and completely worn out. The gallery posted a quote from Keith to Bill Graham something to the effect of “You’re a driving asshole, but I’d never want to tour without you again.” Apparently Graham had gone the extra mile by fixing Keith’s boots himself. That’s an old school promoter, folks!

Keiths Boots

Bill Graham never gave up his fight for human rights and was publicly outraged and appalled when Ronald Reagan was scheduled to visit Bitburg cemetery in Germany, the resting place of some S.S. heavyweights. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me as well, explaining the line in that Ramones song, “Bonzo goes to Bitburg baby, sits down for a cup of tea….” Shortly afterward, Graham’s office headquarters were firebombed. Coincidence?

Graham was killed near Vallejo, California in a helicopter crash in 1991, returning from a Huey Lewis & The News concert. His legacy will always remain.

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