Jefferson Airplane
Graham promoted bands such as Jefferson Airplane, here playing at Woodstock in 1969. Photo by Henry Diltz/Michael Lang/Sony via Bloomberg
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On January 8, 1931, Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin. Some years later, when he was a teenager growing up without his family in New York, Wolfgang renamed himself “Bill Graham,” which is how one of the great rock promoters of the 20th century was known to the public.

Graham’s parents, Friedel and Yankel Grajonca, had immigrated to Germany from Russia several years earlier. After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, Friedel placed her son and one of his five sisters in an orphanage for protection (Yankel Grajonca had died two days after Wolfgang’s birth). The orphanage arranged for them to be sent to France.

After the fall of France, they were spirited south to Marseille and then to Spain and Portugal. Tolla, the sister, did not survive the journey; Wolfgang, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, sailed in September 1941 for the United States. There he was placed in an orphanage and was eventually adopted by a family in the Bronx, New York. Three of Graham’s sisters who remained in Germany survived the war and eventually made it to the United States, while his mother and another sister died in the death camps.

Graham - he supposedly chose his name out of a phone book, looking for something that resembled “Grajonca,” but sounded American - became a U.S. citizen in 1949, and after being drafted, fought in the Korean War. He was an undisciplined soldier, but was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart after being wounded. After the war, he earned a degree in business administration in New York, worked a variety of odd jobs, before moving to San Francisco, where one of his sisters was living. There, in 1965, he became the business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater company, which he had encountered at a free concert in Golden Gate Park.

When the Mime Troupe’s director, Ronnie Davis, was arrested on obscenity charges, Graham arranged a benefit concert to raise money for legal fees. Among those who appeared were poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti as well as music acts The Fugs and the Jefferson Airplane. The success of that effort led to further benefit shows, which he mounted in the old Fillmore Auditorium, and eventually to Graham’s leaving the company to become an independent promoter.

From there, it was a short if tumultuous journey to becoming a major promoter. He managed Jefferson Airplane for a while, and staged shows with the Grateful Dead, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Lenny Bruce, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, and many others, including, later, the Rolling Stones. In San Francisco, he operated both the Fillmore and the Winterland ice-skating arena, and in 1968 opened up what he called Fillmore East in New York, where he also ran a booking agency.   

Throughout the ‘70s, Graham, who himself became a celebrity in part because of his tempestuous personality and partly because of his meticulous managerial skills, organized increasingly large events, promoting shows that brought together several major acts in large outdoor spaces – for example a show in San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium, in March 1975, featuring the Grateful Dead, Santana, Bob Dylan and the Band, and Neil Young, among others, a benefit to raise money for after-school programs in the city. That same year, he paid for “Mama Menorah,” a giant 22-foot Hanukkah candelabra erected by Chabad in San Francisco’s Union Square, and now an international tradition for the Hasidic sect.

In 1985, Graham sponsored a rally in San Francisco to protest the decision of President Ronald Reagan to attend a memorial ceremony in Germany at Bitburg Cemetery, where members of the Waffen SS had been buried; in response, his offices were firebombed. His concert promotion continued through that decade and the beginning of the ‘90s, as he became involved in increasingly larger benefit productions, including the American segment of the Live Aid global effort to raise money to fight hunger in Africa, in 1985.

On October 25, 1991, Graham attended a concert he had promoted at a hall in Concord, California, northeast of San Francisco. Shortly after his helicopter took off from the site it crashed into a utility tower, killing Graham, his companion and the pilot. A week later, a free concert in his memory in Golden Gate Park, at which many of the acts he had worked with over his career performed, drew up to a half million people.