“Bill Graham and The Rock & Roll Revolution” with New-York Historical Society’s Cristian Petru Panaite

“Bill Graham and The Rock & Roll Revolution” with New-York Historical Society’s Cristian Petru Panaite

The New-York Historical Society recently opened Bill Graham and The Rock & Roll Revolution, an exhibition centered around one of the most influential concert promoters of all time. We spoke to Cristian Petru Panaite, Associate Curator of Exhibitions, on Bill Graham’s legacy and impact on the music industry as well as what visitors to the exhibit can expect.

Describe your role at the New-York Historical Society.
I am the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society and the coordinating curator of the Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition which was originally organized by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution explores the life and work of one of rock and roll’s iconic figures. Tell us about Bill Graham. What was it about him that captivated the music industry and the artists he worked with?
Bill Graham was described as a lion by Carlos Santana. He was also described as a mix of Al Capone and Mother Theresa by actor Peter Coyote. He’s been known as the most famous non-musician in the rock & roll industry. Bill is the legendary impresario who had a profound effect on the rock & roll scene from the ’60s all the way to the ’90s. He is the man behind Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and Janis Joplin. Bill Graham revolutionized the way rock music was presented, helping transform it into a multibillion-dollar global business. He also saw rock & roll as a force for supporting humanitarian causes and produced benefit concerts like Live Aid, A Conspiracy of Hope, and Human Rights Now! The vision and energy he brought to those early humanitarian concerts are influencing the humanitarian concerts of today. I really think of him as a curator of music. His mantra for much of his career was that he gave people not what they wanted but what they should want. That is truly inspirational and I think it can be applied not only to music but art in general.

He was a master of what he called “people assemblage.” His hands-on approach to organizing events and concerts, his attention to detail, and punctuality come across in many of the photographs and artifacts that are on display. I think the great care he displayed towards the artists and the ticket-buyers was second to none. Musicians wanted to play at his venues. Both musicians and ticket holders knew that a Bill Graham-produced concert was a high quality, safe, and certainly fun one. There are so many stories that exemplify this: the breakfasts after the New Year’s Eve Parties at Winterland, the Fillmore concerts extending through the morning hours, the Thanksgiving dinner at Winterland, Bill fixing Jerry Garcia’s guitar during the Trips Festival or Keith Richards’ boots (on display in the exhibition with the original duct tape Bill used). I was giving a presentation to our fabulous docents and one of them remembered the hot cocoa she had at the Fillmore East. I just wish I would have been present at one of these concerts, but instead I get to live vicariously through the memories that our docents shared, the books, photographs, and recordings available. I can’t wait to hear stories from the people who will visit the show. 

What do we know about Bill Graham’s early life?
In Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, Bill acknowledges he did not remember his early childhood: “I’ve asked very little about my mother and very little about my father. I have no recollection of either of them.” Bill was born Wolfgang Grajonca in 1931 in Berlin, and lost his father, a civil engineer, two days after his birth. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Bill’s mother sent him to live in a children’s home (kinderheim) and later put Bill on a children’s transport to France, thinking this would keep him safe. He never saw her again. Bill’s mother perished on the train to Auschwitz, where one of his five sisters also died. After Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, an International Red Cross worker took Bill and other refugee children to Portugal where he was put on a ship, the Serpa Pinto, to New York. Malnourished, suffering from rickets and a bone marrow problem, the 10-year-old arrived in New York on September 24, 1941. Bill saw the Statue of Liberty when he arrived—a memory that stayed with him. After nine weeks of waiting, he was adopted by a family from the Bronx—Pearl and Alfred Ehrenheich. In school, tired of being bullied for his accent he practiced his English by reading newspaper articles aloud to his foster brother, Roy. He picked his name from a New York City telephone book and attended the DeWitt Clinton High School and later on CUNY. He frequented the Palladium Ballroom in Manhattan and fell in love with the New York Latino music scene: Tito Puente, Celia Cruz. He found his love for acting and theater in New York, and soon after he headed west to Los Angeles and San Francisco. I recall there’s a story about Bill being told by a film agent that he could get plenty of movie parts playing a New York cab driver. 

What impact did Bill Graham have on Rock and Roll and how does his work continue to influence the music industry today?
Here’s one example of his impact: In 1966, an unknown 19-year-old named Carlos Santana joined members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane on stage at the Fillmore and wowed the audience by playing a stunning solo on a borrowed guitar. A month later, the Santana Blues Band auditioned for Bill, who began booking them regularly. So phenomenal were their live performances that they became the only group ever to headline the Fillmore without having made a record. Bill later became Carlos Santana’s manager, as well as his friend and mentor.

No one put on a show like Bill. He managed to convince the Rolling Stones to go on a nationwide tour. They played before three million people in 30 cities and grossed $50 million in ticket sales, making the tour the most profitable in rock & roll history. And the work he did putting on charity concerts featuring big-name musicians is something that’s still felt today. 

Bill Graham between takes during the filming of “A ’60s Reunion with Bill Graham: A Night at the Fillmore,” Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986 Courtesy of Ken Friedman

What did the process of curating the pieces for the exhibit look like? Where did you start looking and how did you choose what to include?  
For our presentation the main challenge has been fitting such a rich story, told through more than 300 artifacts, photographs, concert posters, and rock memorabilia, in our gallery space. To name a few of the showstopper objects: Janis Joplin’s microphone and a Jimi Hendrix costume, Carlos Santana’s Yamaha SG200 guitar, a 1959 Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul played by Duane Allman, Bill’s Father Time Costume from the 1988 New Year’s Eve/Grateful Dead Party, Keith Richard’s boots from the 1981 Tattoo You tour. 

For our iteration, we created areas telling the stories of the venues Bill managed (the Fillmore West, Fillmore East, Winterland) which run parallel with displays dedicated to some of the most iconic musicians Bill worked with: the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The way our space is configured allows for some interesting intersecting narratives to occur as visitors will learn about the venues, the bands, and Bill’s genius in orchestrating all these concerts. 

We also worked on creating a dramatic display of concert posters and within that display we “hid” a couple of pieces that Bill favored. Peter Bailey (who designed the very first Jefferson Airplane concert poster for Bill), the late Wes Wilson, Bonnie MacLean (whose original poster artwork is also on display), David E. Byrd, Stanley Mouse, David Singer are all represented in the show. A fun fact is that Bill was not a big fan of the intricate lettering found in psychedelic posters. He found these hard to read and even joked that they should all come with an asterisk and explanation at the bottom clarifying everything, like the bands playing and so on. 

Some pieces from the original show could not travel any longer due to their fragility in which case we had to look for local loans. The Poster House Museum directed me to the Bahr Gallery in Oyster Bay and Chisholm-Larsson Gallery downtown, where we found some great psychedelic posters for loan. For research I also visited the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and the Woodstock Festival Grounds and the Avalon Archives at the Falcon in Marlboro, NY. At the Falcon an amplifier used by The Band, most likely during the taping of The Last Waltz, caught my eye and is in the show. We also ended up getting a lot of era appropriate vinyls (LP records) including many of the recordings that happened at the Fillmore venues. Visitors will have fun looking through our selection of LPs. This display is also a nod to Bill often asking musicians which three records would they take with them on an island. His three were Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain (1960), Ravel’s Bolero…and the story goes that he would always change his mind about the third album. 

Are there any elements of the exhibit that are unique to the New York showing?
Before entering the exhibition, visitors are welcomed by a site-specific installation of “The Joshua Light Show,” the trailblazing liquid light show conceived by multimedia artist Joshua White. While this liquid light show was conceived for the original presentation of the exhibition at the Skirball, each venue where the exhibition has traveled chose to present it in different ways. We were fortunate to meet multiple times with Mr. White and gather his creative input on how to best present this 45-minute installation. We chose to have this projection at the entrance in the exhibition as Joshua White’s liquid light shows were iconic in Bill Graham’s “church of rock & roll” in New York at the Fillmore East. It’s one of the largest projections we’ve had in an exhibition space to date, and it’s a sight to behold. 

Completely new to our presentation is an immersive audio experience curated specifically for New-York Historical. Music is everywhere in the gallery. As visitors walk through and learn about Bill’s influence on three decades of American rock & roll, they will be engulfed by the music he loved and championed. Visitors will carry special listening devices triggered by infrared sensors. For a superior listening experience, the devices are paired with Master & Dynamic MH30 headphones. Visitors will get to hear early Chuck Berry tunes and Bill’s favorite Latino music to which he danced in the Catskill resorts where he worked in his youth, featuring music by Tito Puente, Celia Cruz. There’s Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, The Fugs, Santana, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, The Band, Allman Brothers, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Bowie—the list goes on and on. You’d need more than five hours to hang around the gallery and listen to all the music that’s available. 

We also created an interactive touch-screen experience where visitors can access various media content. This includes excerpts from the feature movies Bill was in—Bill’s dream was to be an actor, by the way—like Apocalypse Now, Bugsy, and Gardens of Stone, archival footage from Bill’s iconic New Year’s Eve/Grateful Dead Parties for which he dressed in costumes like Father Time (a costume which is on display in the exhibition), a chicken, a witch doctor, or a butterfly. There are also audio clips of Bill talking about his childhood, his early days as a promoter or closing the Fillmore venues. Lastly there are audio clips of famous musicians reminiscing about Bill and his legacy. A fun little thing—when visitors pick up the headphones to begin they will listen to Bill humming I Love You Much Too Much, a song he learned from his close friend, Carlos Santana. I recommend that before you enter the exhibition, you take a minute to listen to this clip and then enter the gallery and, in the words of Bill Graham, “read the things on the wall, a balloon may come your way, music may start, it’s okay.”

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