BRUSQUE, RUMPLED AND CHARMING to the end, Bill Graham had spent his last hours the way he loved best—working a rock show. Part mogul, part mensch, the man who had helped shape rock music for three decades had seemed relaxed backstage at a Concord, Calif., Huey Lewis concert on Friday, Oct. 25. Graham did mention, though, that the helicopter fight to the Concord venue had been harrowing in the high winds and hard rain.

After the concert, the 60-year-old Graham took off once again with his companion, Melissa Gold, 47, and pilot Steve Kahn, 42. Police speculate that Kahn, flying low at night under thick clouds and using the road below for guidance, never saw the 200-foot electrical tower in his path. The chopper slammed into the unlit structure, and sparks from the 15,000-volt wires ignited a jet-fuel fireball that instantly killed all aboard.

The crash stunned the rock world, particularly in San Francisco, where Graham was known as much for his charitable fund-raising as for helping to launch the careers of the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and other megastars of the psychedelic '60s. Three days after the crash, more than 2,000 mourners turned out for his funeral at San Francisco's Temple Emanu-el.

As a promoter in the '60s, Graham had converted an old San Francisco skating rink into the Fillmore Auditorium, opened a sister theater in New York City and made them the the hottest venues of the era. Just about everybody from Santana to Eric Clapton, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin came to play. Backstage with clipboard and stopwatch one minute, out front giving free apples to patrons the next, Graham personally took charge of everything—hiring the bands, taste-testing the hot dogs, checking the sound systems and verbally blistering anyone who got in his way.

In the 1970s, as audiences grew, Graham closed the Fillmores and began staging festivals and stadium tours featuring the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and other big-draw acts. Six years ago he produced the Live Aid benefit concert in Philadelphia for world famine relief, characteristically bringing the 14-hour show to an end only three minutes over schedule

Even more impressively, Graham's professional success was simply the second act in an already remarkable life. Born Wolfgang Wolodia Grajonca to Russian Jewish émigrés in Berlin, Graham never knew his father, who was killed in a construction accident two days after his son's birth. Left to support six children, his mother put her only son and the youngest of her five daughters, Tolla, into an orphanage. Sent to France in an exchange program, the two remained sheltered there until Germany invaded in 1940, and they were forced to flee, on foot, with 63 other children and a Red Cross worker. On the way to Lyon, Tolla died of starvation.

One of only 11 survivors of a journey through Europe, northern Africa and Cuba, Graham arrived in the U.S. in 1942. Placed in a New York City orphanage that was, he said, "like a pet shop" where children were displaced to potential adoptive families, he was eventually taken in by foster parents. To kids in his new neighborhood, "I was a Nazi," he said. "My [foster] brother Roy used a mirror, teaching me how to lose my German accent. I learned Bronx English very quickly."

Graham later learned that his mother died in a German gas chamber but that his four sisters had survived. As a teenager, he worked odd jobs to help pay their passage to the U.S. Drafted in 1951, he was sent to Korea, where he received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart—and two courts-martial for disobeying orders.

Drifting to San Francisco after his discharge, Graham eventually look a $125-a-month acting gig with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. At one point, "we needed money, so we held a subterranean fund-raising," he later recalled. "A psychedelic bacchanal. Nov. 6, 1965—the beginning of my rock life. I had never heard of the musicians Jefferson Airplane or Mothers of Invention. It lasted until 6 A.M. and blew my mind. Everyone wanted to do it again, so I rented an old skating rink with a stage. That became Fillmore West."

Offstage, Graham led a relatively private personal life. Twice divorced and the father of two sons and a stepson, he briefly dated Rosie Hall, a sister of model Jerry Hall, and for the past year, Melissa Gold, ex-wife of novelist Herbert Gold. He drove a sea-green Jaguar, lived in suburban Corte Madera, north of San Francisco, and had even taken a break from promoting recently to accept an acting role as gangster "Lucky" Luciano in the upcoming film Bugsy Siegel.

At the time of his death, Graham was planning yet another benefit, this time for victims of last month's Oakland fire. "He was giving an enormous amount of time to charities," says singer Grace Slick, friends with Graham since the Mime Troupe benefit 26 years ago.

To Slick, like many performers, Graham's great gift was his ability to promote the talents of "a bunch of hairy, disorganized musicians" who wouldn't otherwise have made it in show business. "He was able to go from the boardroom to the stage without changing clothes," Slick says. "Bill was one of them and one of us. It's scary not having him here anymore. He was one of those people you thought would never die."


  • Contributors:
  • Dianna Waggoner,
  • Dirk Mathison.