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Bill Graham’s rock empire goes bi-coastal as the Fillmore East opens

Bands like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Santana owe a great deal of their success to the business acumen of the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, whose skill and creativity turned San Francisco into a musical Mecca for both fans and performers in the late 1960s. In 1966, Graham opened his own new concert venue, the Fillmore, which quickly became an important stop on the concert itinerary of nearly every great band of the era. Two years later, his psychedelic musical empire went bi-coastal with the opening of the Fillmore East in New York City on March 8, 1968.

Opening night at the Fillmore East was typical of the kind of show put together by Graham, who was a pioneer in combining roots music with contemporary rock and roll in a way that became de rigueur at 1960s rock festivals. The bill featured blues guitarist Albert King, folk singer-songwriter Tim Buckley and Janis Joplin’s group Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had just begun recording their landmark Cheap Thrills album. Over the course of the next two months, the Fillmore East brought some of the biggest names in late 60s rock to Manhattan’s East Village: The Doors (March 22), The Who (April 5-6), Traffic (April 19-20), Jefferson Airplane (May 3-4) and Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone (May 10) and The Byrds (May 18).

With a capacity of only about 3,600 seats the Fillmore East was a far cry from the gigantic stadiums and arenas that big-name rock acts would start limiting themselves to in the 1970s. It was the beginning of that super-sizing trend that helped push Bill Graham out of the rock-promotion business temporarily after he shuttered both the Fillmore East and Fillmore West in 1971. In explaining his decision to close the venues, Graham told The Village Voice that “The rock scene in this country [that] was created by a need felt by the people, expressed by the musicians, and, I hope, aided to some degree by the efforts of the Fillmores…[has] turned into the music industry of festivals, 20,000 seat halls, miserable production quality, and second-rate promoters.”

After his early-70s hiatus, Graham would turn his attention to producing events on the scale of Rolling Stones stadium tours and the American side of Live Aid. Within that world, he was greatly respected for staging concerts that were creatively ambitious, commercially successful and professionally run. “Bill changed the way rock evolved,” said The Who’s Pete Townshend. “Without him, I would not be here.” Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash near San Francisco on October 25, 1991, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year.

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