GRAHAM, BILL (Wulf Wolodia Grajonca, Wolfgang Grajonca; 1931–1991), rock 'n' roll concert promoter and manager, member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Graham was born to Frieda (Sass) and Yankel, religious Russian Jews who had moved to Berlin before his birth. Jacob died from an accident two days after Graham was born, and his mother was forced to put her only son and the youngest of her five daughters in the Auerbach orphanage so that she could seek employment.
On July 4, 1939, Graham and 39 other children from the orphanage in Berlin left on a
to France, arriving at Chateau de Quincy, 30 km southeast of Paris. Later Graham was placed in a baby orphanage in Paris, and then the group was spirited in the middle of the night into Free France, transported to Chateau de Chaumont, Creuse. In July 1941, Graham and his sister, Tolla, joined a group of children who took a train south to Marseille, and then to Spain and Portugal, not long before their mother was gassed by the Nazis. The children were severely malnourished, and Tolla fell ill with pneumonia in Lyon; Graham never saw her again. He left Lisbon with 55 other children on the Serpa Pinto on September 9, 1941, arriving in New York on September 24, 1941. Brought over by
as part of the One Thousand Children – the only group of unaccompanied children who were rescued from the Holocaust by the United States – Graham was sent to an orphanage at Pleasantville, N.J., and was subsequently adopted by Alfred and Pearl Ehrenreich. He changed his name to Graham and became an American citizen in 1949. Graham fought in the Korean War and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
In 1955 he moved to San Francisco, joining two of his sisters who had emigrated there from Israel. After a few office jobs and acting gigs, he became the manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Graham produced his first concert, a benefit for the Mime Troupe, on November 1, 1965, featuring the Jefferson Airplane, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The Committee, The Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, and other elements of the San Francisco art scene and subculture. Four months later, on February 4, 1966, Graham promoted his first show under his new company, Bill Graham Presents, featuring the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore Auditorium, a dilapidated auditorium that Graham transformed into a tightly run concert hall. It was at the Fillmore that Graham helped launch the careers of some of the icons of rock: Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead.
"The Fillmore … was the church of rock 'n' roll, and Bill was the shepherd tending the flock," said Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Dead.
In 1968, Graham moved the Fillmore into the Carousel Ballroom, another old dance hall, and renamed it the Fillmore West to go with his opening the Fillmore East in New York City. He subsequently took over Winterland, another San Francisco concert venue. Graham also branched out into band management and tour promotion.
Considered the Barnum and Bailey of rock 'n' roll, Graham revolutionized concert promotion, bringing professionalism to the business of presenting rock shows. That included having great lighting, great sound, shows that started on time, making artists do encores, making sure artists showed up on time for shows – in short, Graham brought the rules, order, and concept of theater to rock 'n' roll, as well as setting the standard for well-produced large-scale rock concerts.
Graham, who lived by himself in a Marin County house he named "Masada," also devoted much time and energy to produce benefits, mobilizing musicians on behalf of a wide range of social issues. In 1975, Graham paid for Chabad's 22-foot-high "Mama Menorah," the first giant public menorah displayed outside Israel, which is now replicated around the world. After he was killed in a helicopter crash in California, the Bill Graham Foundation was formed as a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.
An unauthorized biography, Rage & Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock, was written by John Glatt in 1993, and Graham was in the middle of writing his own autobiography, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out (1992) with Robert Greenfield when he died. Graham was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.