From Holocaust refugee to rock’s greatest promoter

New York exhibit recalls the unlikely Jewish rock & roll journey of Bill Graham.

Billy Graham at the The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, 1986 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Billy Graham at the The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, 1986
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – It is hard to imagine what the music scene in Israel might have looked like had Bill Graham decided to choose the Jewish homeland instead of the Golden Medina.
The legendary impresario and music promoter, born Wolfgang Grajonca in 1931 in Berlin, was a young boy fleeing Germany in 1940. He and other Jewish orphans were given the choice to go to America or Israel.
“We’d never heard of either place, so we went to America!” recounts childhood friend Ralph Moratz in a three-minute video that greets visitors to the Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution exhibit on display from February 14-August 23 at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.
Soon after Graham arrived in America, the world of rock & roll would never be the same. Graham, at both his legendary venues the Fillmore East in New York and Fillmore West in San Francisco, and later as an international promoter for tours of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and shows like Live Aid, became one of the key figures in the emergence of rock culture in the US and around the world.
The fascinating exhibit takes music lovers through over 300 objects including rare backstage photos and concert posters, ticket stubs and costumes. Fans can gravitate to displays of favorite bands, concert venues and music festivals – the Who, the Stones,  Dylan, the Fillmore East and West, and Live Aid – all while listening to favorite tunes of Santana, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company on immersive audio devices.
Howard Warner, 75, of Bayside, Queens, was fixated on photos of Janis Joplin. “She was great. She was taken too soon.” He then adds, “I remember all of these people. I can relate.” He was particularly taken by Graham’s World War II story, which he proceeded to recount.
But the excitement begins long before entering the actual exhibit hall. The main hallway of the museum features changing displays of such music legends as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in Oakland, and Jimi Hendrix in Winterland. A giant screen shows the Joshua Light Show, “the most technically and artistically sophisticated light show to emerge during the 1960’s,” as the Grateful Dead’s classic “Terrapin Station” from December 30, 1978, played in the background.
To the right of the ticket booth, a jukebox-like contraption displaying the words “Explore Bill’s Life” sucked me in with audio and visual tributes to Bill Graham. Jerry Garcia tells the story of Graham coming over to him “in a sweater, with a clipboard,” attempting to fix his broken guitar. “I loved him right at that moment. He was a real sweetheart.”
Jorma Kakounen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna recalls meeting Graham at a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Graham organized a successful benefit concert for the troupe, which helped launch his career as a concert promoter.
OTHER LONG-TIME friends mention Graham’s “grand pyrotechnics” at concerts, and recall how he “was not good at delegating,” was “literally everywhere” and personally handed out apples to show attendees at the Fillmore. A basket with fake apples is on view at the entrance to the exhibit.
When I finally entered the exhibit, I learned about Graham’s connection to the legendary apples he gave out to hungry fans at to the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco between 1965 and 1971. The sign encouraged concert-goers to “Have one... or two” fresh red apples. The apples suggest a connection to Graham’s impoverished childhood.
In 1939, the Nazis shut down the Auerbach kinderheim (children’s home) in Berlin. His father, Jacob, a civil engineer, died when Bill was two. His mother, Freida, who sold artificial flowers, costume jewelry and women’s clothing in Berlin in the 1920s, sent him to France. The children were told they were going on a two-week vacation when they were sent on July 4, 1940. He never saw his mother again.
Bill reports, “I don’t mind hearing what happened to me as a kid. I’ve asked very little about my mother and very little about my father. I have no recollection of either of them.” He also reports having no memories of anything prior to the age of nine.
In the moving black and white video, childhood friend Moratz describes their lack of food in France. “We were really hungry, and we helped ourselves to local apples. Bill would climb out of the window. It was one of the most enjoyable things.... [Later] Bill always had a bowl of apples.” He was referring to the famous concert apples.
Graham and his fellow orphans made their way from France, through the Pyrenees, to Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Casablanca, Dakar, Cuba and eventually to New York.
Graham’s describes himself as “angry and belligerent” when he first arrived to his New York foster home. A couple from the Bronx, with a child, Roy, two years older than Graham and learning French and German – the two languages he knew – took him in.
The exhibit traces Bill’s fascinating childhood and teen years which included attending DeWitt Clinton High School and City College, a stint in the US Army serving in the Korean War (earning the Bronze Star and Purple Heart), summers busing tables, serving as a maître d’ (and listening to live music) at various Catskills resorts, evenings at the Palladium Ballroom in New York City dancing the Mambo to Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.
In the early 1960s, Graham moved to San Francisco and began to manage the San Francisco Mime Troupe. His successful benefit concert and promotion of several free concerts in the Bay Area led to his career as a full-time concert promoter. His successful career put him in constant contact with such legends as the Who, Hendrix,  Dylan, the Allman Brothers, and the  Dead.
WHILE GRAHAM quickly shed his European name and accent, he did not lose the connection to his Jewish past, and to the meaning of the Holocaust experience. The exhibit displays a Fillmore Auditorium dance hall permit from 1966. Many local merchants were opposed to the application for the permit.
“The rabbi from the temple next door said, ‘Mr. Graham’s people, they’re urinating on my holy walls.’” Graham then approached each merchant individually.
“I put on my suit and tie and went to see every merchant who had signed the petition and got 24 of them to say it was okay. Then I went to see the rabbi, who started lecturing me about persecution. I realized he thought he was talking to a goy.
“How dare you talk to me about persecution! After I told him what happened to my mother and my sisters, he said, “We have to talk about the holidays. So out of concern for him, I volunteered not to have shows on the High Holidays.”
Many years later, when Graham learned in 1985 that president Ronald Reagan intended to lay a wreath at Bitburg’s World War II cemetery where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried, Graham took out a full page ad in The San Francisco Chronicle and urged people who shared his fury to join him at a rally in Union Square in San Francisco. Two days after Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, a firebomb (planted by neo-Nazis) destroyed Graham’s office.
Graham was in France at the time of the bombing, meeting with Bob Geldof to organize the first Live Aid concert. Graham lost nearly all memorabilia from his 20-year career including gold and platinum albums and hundreds of original Fillmore posters. His dance hall permit survived. Despite the devastating emotional toll the firebombing took, he continued working. Graham eventually led an effort to build a large menorah that is lit during every Hanukkah in downtown San Francisco.
Graham died tragically in a helicopter crash on October 25, 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert. Graham, known for promoting concerts for various important societal causes, had attended the event to discuss promoting a benefit concert for the victims of the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm. A sign at the exhibit notes, “Two days after Bill’s death, more than 2,000 mourners gathered at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El to remember him... Carlos Santana performed a moving eulogy, playing ‘I Love You Much Too Much,’ a Yiddish song Bill had taught him.
Graham came to America from the horrors of Europe, speaking no English. He shed his European accent, spoke unaccented English and left for his eternal resting place to the sound of Santana singing a Yiddish song in his memory.
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution is organized and circulated by the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, in association with the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, and made possible by the support of Alex Graham, David Graham and Danny Scher. The New-York Historical Society is grateful for the cooperation of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Coordinated at New-York Historical by Cristian Petru Panaite, associate curator of exhibitions.