New-York Historical Society Presents The Rock & Roll World Of Legendary Impresario Bill Graham

Immersive Audio Experience Featuring the Music of David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and Other Rock & Roll Icons and a Recreation of the Fillmore East’s Famous “Joshua Light Show” Bring Visitors into the Rock & Roll World

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution On View Now Through August 23, 2020

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

Bill Graham combined an ear for talent with an eye for business. A refugee from Nazi Germany and a child of the Bronx, he instinctively grasped rock & roll’s relevance and potential, swiftly becoming one of history’s most influential concert promoters.

The New-York Historical Society presents the rock & roll world of Bill Graham (1931–1991), one of the most influential concert promoters of all time. Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, (opened February 14 and) now on view through August 23, 2020, explores the life and work of the legendary music impresario who worked with the biggest names in rock music—including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones—and launched the careers of countless music luminaries at his famed Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City. Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center, which debuted the exhibition in Los Angeles, this comprehensive retrospective of Graham’s life and career explores some of the 20th century’s momentous cultural transformations through the lens of rock & roll.

American singer-songwriter and poet Jim Morrison (1943-1971), lead singer of The Doors, at the Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco, December 1967.
Gelatin silver print Iconic Images/Baron Wolman

Graham started using the 5,400-seat Winterland in 1966 for shows too big for the Fillmore Auditorium. Winterland became a communal hub, and people from across the Bay Area would cruise by on Saturday nights to see what was happening. Graham sometimes sold as many as 2,000 tickets at the door.
The Grajonca Family, Berlin, ca. 1938 Gelatin silver print Collection of David and Alex Graham

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in 1931, Graham’s Russian Jewish parents immigrated to Berlin searching for a better life; the Nazis’ rise to power crushed those dreams. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Graham’s mother put him on a children’s transport to France, thinking this would keep him safe. He never saw her again. His mother perished on the train to Auschwitz.

Showcasing more than 300 objects—including rock memorabilia, photographs, and concert posters—the New-York Historical presentation, coordinated by Associate Curator of Exhibitions Cristian Petru Panaite, highlights Graham’s personal connections to New York. Admission to the exhibition will be via timed-entry tickets and begins with a site-specific installation of “The Joshua Light Show,” the trailblazing liquid light show conceived in 1967 by multimedia artist Joshua White that served as a psychedelic backdrop to Graham’s concert productions in New York.

Jimi Hendrix performs at Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, February 1, 1968 Gelatin silver print Iconic Images/Baron Wolman
Graham once said: “Live, Jimi Hendrix was a combination of the ultimate trickster and the ultimate technician with great emotional ability. There was nobody close to him.”
Prince and the Revolution perform at the Cow Palace, Daly City, CA, March 1, 1985 Chromogenic print Courtesy of Ken Friedman
Graham continued enchanting audiences, presenting memorable shows featuring Madonna, U2, Prince, David Bowie, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Madonna performs during her Blonde Ambition tour, Oakland Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA, May 18, 1990 Chromogenic print Courtesy of Ken Friedman

Unique to New-York Historical is a special, immersive audio experience, providing a musical tour through the exhibition with songs by rock & roll superstars the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry, Blondie, David Bowie, Cream, the Doors, Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, KISS, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Tom Petty, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Carlos Santana, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, and Neil Young, among others. Included in the four-hour soundtrack available to visitors are also mambo hits by Tito Puente that Graham loved in his early years in New York. The audio experience is generously sponsored by luxury audio brand Master & Dynamic. A playlist of featured songs is available on Spotify.

View from the audience: The Rolling Stones at Day on the Green Oakland Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, California, July 26, 1978 Gelatin silver print Iconic Iconic Images/Baron Wolman

After a long and involved courtship, Mick Jagger finally agreed to let Graham take the Rolling Stones on a nationwide tour of the U.S. in 1981. 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.

Even though Bill Graham and the Fillmore East transformed the city’s music scene in the late 1960s, few know about Graham’s immigrant background and New York roots,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “We are proud to collaborate with our colleagues at the Skirball Cultural Center to present this exhibition in New York—Graham’s first American hometown—and to highlight his local experience. His rock & roll life was a pop-culture version of the American dream come true.”

Master & Dynamic is proud to sponsor Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution in our hometown of New York City,” said Nathaniel Teichman, head of strategy & business development at Master & Dynamic. “We are committed to supporting the New York-Historical Society and to helping bring to life the story of Bill Graham, who transcended incredible odds after escaping the Nazis to become one of the most influential figures in rock history.”

Note from Donovan to Bill Graham, San Francisco, November 1967 Offset print with inscribed ink Collection of David and Alex Graham Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

British singer, songwriter, and guitarist Donovan played a series of shows at the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland, after which he composed a note to Graham that read: “You are, by far, the friendliest, most considerate promoter I have had the pleasure to work with.” He signed the note: “Thy humble minstrel.”

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution begins with family snapshots of Graham’s experience as a Jewish emigrant from Nazi Germany and his journey to America. Born in Berlin as Wolfgang Grajonca, he arrived in New York at the age of 11 as part of a Red Cross effort to help Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. He lived with a foster family in the Bronx and spent his teenage years in New York City before being drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War. Graham relocated to San Francisco in the early 1960s as the hippie movement was growing and took over the lease on the Fillmore Auditorium, where he produced groundbreaking shows throughout the decade, including sold-out concerts by the Grateful Dead, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Doors, among many others.

The exhibition showcases performance and backstage photographs of these and other music icons, including blues legend B.B. King, who reportedly saw “long-haired white people” lining up outside the venue to watch him perform and said: “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” Graham was committed to booking diverse acts at his venues, saying: “I never give the public what it wants. I give the public what it should want.” Also on view are guitars played by legendary performers such as Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend of the Who, and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, as well as numerous psychedelic-art concert posters showing Graham’s mastery of promoting and marketing artists. Stage costumes worn by Jimi Hendrix and Peter Frampton as well as Janis Joplin’s microphone and tambourine are on display.

In 1968, Graham opened the Fillmore East on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, historically the heart of New York’s Jewish immigrant community, just as it was becoming a countercultural hub. During its three-year run, rock fans filled the 2,700-seat venue to hear the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and others. A highlight of the Fillmore East experience was “The Joshua Light Show,” a mesmerizing liquid light show, conceived by multimedia artist Joshua White, that played as the backdrop as bands performed; in this installation, specially created for the exhibition, a colorful explosion of choreographed artistic projections set to music greet visitors at the entrance of the exhibition.

Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul played by Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band during live concert recording at Fillmore East; recorded: March 12–13, 1971 Mahogany back, maple top, rosewood fingerboard, nitrocellulose trapezoid inlays Collection of Galadrielle Allman Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Led by Gregg and Duane Allman, the Allman Brothers Band wove together elements of blues, jazz, country, and rock to create soulful and driving Southern rock. Their March 1971 album, At Fillmore East, is widely considered one of rock’s greatest live albums. Seven months after recording it, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash, devastating the band and its fans.
Yamaha Corporation
Yamaha SG200 played and signed by Carlos Santana, Hamamatsu, Japan, ca. 1984–1986 Nato wood body and neck, rose inlays in mother of pearl and turquoise, rosewood fretboard with dot inlays, chrome hardware, chrome Schaller-style tuning pegs Collection of Carlos Santana Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

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 Graham, 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. Graham later became Carlos Santana’s manager, as well as his friend and mentor.

Graham felt that rock & roll was a powerful force for supporting humanitarian causes and was instrumental in the production of milestone benefit concerts in the 1980s such as Live Aid (1985) and Human Rights Now! (1988), as well as the American-Soviet Concert for Peace in Moscow (1987). Outspoken about politics, Graham said, “My love for America was always founded on the feeling that here, I had my rights.” He often faced criticism for his views, however, and in 1985, his San Francisco office was firebombed—the exhibition features items salvaged from his office, including a charred telephone and scale model of the Bill Graham Menorah in Union Square, one of the first Menorah lighting celebrations outside of Israel. Graham died in a helicopter accident in 1991, after leaving a concert.

Telephone from Bill Graham Presents offices, damaged in office firebombing San Francisco, May 7, 1985 Plastic, wiring Collection of David and Alex Graham Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Outraged by President Reagan’s plans to visit a German cemetery where Nazis were buried, Graham took out a newspaper ad and urged all who shared his fury to join him at a rally in San Francisco’s Union Square. Two days after Reagan’s visit, a firebomb destroyed Graham’s office. He lost virtually all the personal memorabilia from his 20-year career, including gold and platinum albums and hundreds of original Fillmore posters. Bill’s dance hall permit survived, however, and he went right on working.
Bonnie MacLean
Bill Graham gives his young son David a piggyback ride, San Francisco, 1969 Gelatin silver print
Collection of David and Alex Graham
American blues musician, singer, songwriter, and guitarist B.B King San Francisco, CA, 1967.
B.B. King backstage at Winterland Auditorium, San Francisco, December 8, 1967 Gelatin silver print Iconic Images/Baron Wolman

Headliners such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane practically guaranteed sold-out performances, freeing Graham to book diverse supporting acts like Otis Redding and B. B. King. “I never give the public what it wants,” Graham asserted. “I give the public what it should want.”

Timed-entry tickets for Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution are on sale on December 20. Visit

On February 26, scholars discuss how Jewish families in Germany similar to Graham’s struggled to find refuge in the years leading up to WWII and the heated debate in the U.S. government over whether to admit those seeking to escape the Holocaust. In the spring, a series of walking tours of Greenwich Village explore the history, music, and culture of the neighborhood.

Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia perform at Day on the Green, Oakland Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA, July 24, 1987 Chromogenic print Courtesy of Ken Friedman
Day on the Green, the hugely popular series of one-day outdoor festivals in Oakland, California, ran for nearly two decades, from 1973 until the early 1990s. Graham produced his last Day on the Green in October 1991, just weeks before his death.
David Bowie performs at Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA, October 21, 1995 Chromogenic print Courtesy of Ken Friedman

A special family guide is available for young visitors to explore the exhibition, featuring activities like scavenger hunts, sketching prompts, and quizzes. During February School Vacation Week, kids create rock & roll-inspired crafts, and Sunday Story Time in the spring features music-themed books.

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 exhibition is coordinated at New-York Historical by Cristian Petru Panaite, associate curator of exhibitions. New-York Historical is grateful for the cooperation of the National Museum of American Jewish History. The audio experience is generously sponsored by luxury audio brand Master & Dynamic.

Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.

The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street), New York, NY 10024. Information: (212) 873-3400. Website: