Movin' and shakin' to keep the music going

1968 Moment: Famed concert promotor Bill Graham switches venues amidst tensions, violence

After more than three years at the center of Bay Area rock n' roll, Bill Graham needed to make some major changes if he wanted to help keep the music alive.

It was the beginning of summer 1968 and the Fillmore Auditorium, the hugely popular San Francisco concert venue that hosted some of the era's premiere musicians, was facing shrinking audiences. Rage over the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was boiling in the predominantly black neighborhood where the Fillmore was located, and violence was spilling out onto the streets.

Since opening the Fillmore in December of 1965, the charismatic Graham had lured thousands of music fans into the auditorium to dance and munch on apples while listening to some of America's most cutting-edge bands. But ticket snatching and purse grabbing, along with other crimes, were taking their toll on concertgoers. When word came that the Carousel Ballroom - a former car dealership now outfitted with a stage - was closing, the promoter made his move.

The day after pulling out of the auditorium, Graham put on the first show at the new location, which stood on the corner of Market Street and South Van Ness. But while the space was different and much larger than the previous, Graham made sure it felt familiar.

Balloons rested on the ballroom floor. There were apples downstairs and bulletin boards where people could post photos and clippings, just like they'd done at the previous Fillmore. The promoter himself would stand at the top of the stairs placing tickets in a bucket before the lights dimmed and the liquid projections began. Calling it a great laboratory, the Fillmore West was "a place where people could let their hair down," Graham wrote in his autobiography.

The first concent featured two acts: the Butterfield Blues Band, a rock group led by the guitarist Paul Butterfield, and the English band Ten Years After. Other shows followed. By the time Graham decided to close the venue a few years later along with New York sibling the Fillmore East, a who's who of the era's most famous musicians had taken the stage.

The final shows were held at the beginning of July 1971, and featured such acts as Hot Tuna, Tower of Power, Taj Mahal and the Grateful Dead. When the Fillmore West's doors finally closed July 4, Graham told the press he'd shuttered the venue because he was disillusioned with the mass commercialization of the music scene, rampant drug abuse and greedy performers.

But he was nowhere near done being a concert promoter. After a trip to the Mediterranean to recharge and recover, Graham was back in the saddle booking shows, managing groups and filling music venues. He continued to do just that until his tragic death on Oct. 25, 1991.