Bill Graham’s Legacy Celebrated

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Aidin Vaziri | There aren’t many museum exhibitions devoted to the life of a concert promoter. Then again, Bill Graham wasn’t just any concert promoter. And his was no ordinary life.

For a quarter of a century, Graham was rock ’n’ roll’s greatest live music impresario. Between his inconspicuous start with a benefit concert for the San Francisco Mime Troupe at the original Fillmore Auditorium in 1965 to his death at age 60 in a helicopter crash on his way home from a performance by Huey Lewis and the News at the Concord Pavilion in October 1991, the Bay Area mogul fundamentally changed the live music business.

During his reign, Graham, a special inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, established the Fillmore franchise, shepherded the evolution of stadium tours and produced one-of-a-kind rock ’n’ roll events such as the Band’s “Last Waltz” and Live Aid; in the process helping to launch the careers of acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin.

This year marks what would have been Graham’s 85th birthday, and to celebrate the occasion, his life story will be the subject of the exhibit “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which opens Thursday, March 17 and runs through July 5.

The retrospective, featuring everything from vintage psychedelic concert posters to a battered pair of Keith Richards’ leather boots, was originally produced for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles last year — inspired by a much smaller show at the Jazz Heritage Center in San Francisco in 2011.

“His particular story, that biographical narrative, has so much richness,” says Lori Starr, the executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “Great museum shows tell great stories, and his story is a great story.”

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