NEW YORK — Musicians make music, and impresarios make musicians — or at least musicians’ careers. Any history of the rock era would be incomplete without such names as Sam Phillips (Sun Records), Berry Gordy (Motown Records), Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records), Brian Epstein (the Beatles), Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan), or Bill Graham.
Notice how all but one of those names are associated with a record label or act. The exception is Bill Graham (1931-91). He was exceptional in many ways. For one thing, Graham’s the only person on that list with a bit part in “Apocalypse Now” (1979). For another, he’s the subject of an enjoyably sprawling exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution.” It runs through Aug. 23.
Profane, combative, idealistic, principled, shrewd, ferocious: Graham was equal parts flexed muscle and exposed nerve. The actor Peter Coyote once described him as a combination of Mother Teresa and Al Capone. Or maybe Lucky Luciano would be better: Graham played him in “Bugsy” (1991). The show begins with clips of Graham’s several acting roles. When he presented a concert, there was star power backstage as well as in front of the audience.
The members of the company basketball team Graham sponsored named themselves the Fillmore Fingers. That was in honor of the frequency with which their boss expressed his views with the assistance of an upraised middle digit. “I never give the public what it wants,” he liked to say. “I give the public what it should want.”
Even more than impresarios, any history of the rock era would be incomplete without venues: the Cavern Club, the Whisky a Go Go, CBGB, the list goes on. Graham was responsible for putting no fewer than four establishments on that list: the Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Winterland Ballroom. All but one were in San Francisco, and Graham played a crucial role in the careers of such Bay Area bands as the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Jefferson Airplane.
There are many posters in the show, and the words “Bill Graham Presents” appear at the top of most of them. There are also a number of highly unexpected items among the more than 400 on display: Graham’s high school yearbook, the Bronze Star he earned in Korea, the barrel that held apples for patrons by the entrance of the Fillmore Auditorium and Fillmore West, a photo of Graham with Bob Hope (yes, that Bob Hope — it was taken at a charity event). But the most incongruous may be the poster with the words “Jefferson Airplane Presents” over the image of a glowering Graham that the band had printed up. For once, the man behind the curtain was in front of it, and in full Bill Graham mode.
Graham’s impact (influence is too tame a word) extended far beyond the Bay Area. The Fillmore East was 3,000 miles from San Francisco, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (“I wanted Fillmore East to be the white man’s Apollo Theater," Graham said). At least two of the best live albums in rock history were recorded there: Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsies” and the Allman Brothers’ “At Fillmore East.” He promoted the US half of the Live Aid concert (a rare occasion where Graham’s Mother Teresa side and gangster side got to collaborate).
Having ignored his warning not to put on a concert at the Altamont Speedway, the Rolling Stones had Graham promote US and European tours for them. Another candidate for most-incongruous item here is a pair of denim cutoffs bearing the Stones’ tongue-and-lips logo that Graham wore during the 1981 tour.
Clearly, what Graham did, as well as where and when he did it, are very interesting. Yet who he was may be even more so. Wolfgang Grajonca’s parents were Jews who’d fled Russia for Berlin. His mother got him sent to Paris before the outbreak of the war. She would die on the way to Auschwitz, and one of his sisters died there. (One can only imagine Graham’s private thoughts about San Francisco’s Summer of Love.) In a video, a friend who was with Graham in the French refugee camp where they awaited passage to America attributes their survival to Graham’s slipping out at night to steal apples from a nearby orchard. The presence of the fruit at the two Fillmores — and the sign “Have One . . . or Two” — takes on a whole other dimension.
Graham’s foster parents lived in the Bronx. He got his new name out of the phone book, inspired by its relative closeness to his old one. He consciously went about Americanizing himself — though a Norman Rockwell vision of America it was not. He waited tables in the Catskills. He worked on his English by reading newspaper headlines. He’d head to Manhattan on Thursday nights to dance to Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, at the Palladium. Heading west was another form of Americanization. He moved to San Francisco because one of his sisters lived there.
Art and commerce came together when Graham took a job as business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The idea of his being involved with something that didn’t involve sound is pretty funny. But soon enough sound would be central not just to his career but to youth culture. Admission to the New-York Historical Society show includes an audio guide, programmed with music tracks appropriate to each section. The feature is nicely done.
It’s the music and Graham’s musical associations that will draw museumgoers. But once there, a larger imperative might emerge as they contemplate the arc of the man’s life and the sheer variety of his achievements (Lenny Bruce played the Fillmore six weeks before his death!). It seems odd to suggest that so singular an individual can be seen to exemplify so grand, and gassy, a concept as the American Century but maybe that is the case.
Early in 1941, the media mogul Henry Luce described something he called the American Century. This was shortly after the little boy who would become known as Bill Graham had crossed the submarine-infested Atlantic. Luce envisioned a postwar future of stalwart, upper-crust WASPs running the world like so many Ivy League deans. Luce was right, in a way, about American dominance but his rightness had less to do with political hegemony than something we now refer to as “soft power.”
The wielders of that power, the true masters of the American Century, turned out to be poor Southern whites with odd, non-Episcopalian names like Elvis and Jerry Lee, and individuals with non-Episcopalian pigmentation and names both odd (Little Richard) and not (Chuck Berry). Unthinkable as the idea might have seemed, it was they who best embodied the American Century, enlarging and extending it far beyond the vision of Henry Luce.
Graham, the tough-Jew immigrant orphan, played no small part in that enlarging and extending. The greatest question in rock ’n’ roll history is “But can you dance to it?" It’s not hard to imagine Graham — grin on his face, middle finger extended — suggesting a runner-up: “How do you like them apples?”
As of press time, the New-York Historical Society remained open, but be sure to check the organization’s website or call ahead.
BILL GRAHAM AND THE ROCK & ROLL REVOLUTION
At New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West (at 77th St.), through Aug. 23. 212-873-3400, www.nyhistory.org.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.