Bill Graham once said he didn’t remember much about his childhood. Maybe that’s because he preferred to forget.
One of the most influential rock & roll promoters of all time, Graham was quite literally the man behind the music. The manager of the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City during the late 1960s, he was squarely at the center of one the most revolutionary eras in American music, introducing the world to such performers as the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Janis Joplin. The story of his life and career is recounted in the immersive New-York Historical exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution (on view Feb. 14–Aug. 23).
If Graham’s place in the pop culture zeitgeist is remarkable, then how he got there in the first place is even more so. He died in a helicopter accident in 1991, but in his 60 years, he lived a life that was improbable, self-invented, and bombastic. His story was uniquely American—and for someone so associated with a West Coast sound—uniquely New York.
That he survived at all was a miracle: Born Wulf Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin in 1931, Graham was the youngest of six children in a family of Russian Jewish émigrés. His father died two days after his birth, leaving his mother, Frieda, to support the family. Bill’s sister Ester recalled her mother in his biography by Graham and Robert Greenfield, Bill Graham Presents: “She was a very, very, extremely beautiful woman. Very intelligent. Very bright. Very courageous.”
It was a deeply dangerous time in Germany, and Ester vividly remembered the terror of Kristallnacht in 1938. Frieda, fearing for young Bill’s safety, sent him to live at a kinderheim or home for children, but conditions deteriorated so quickly that the school was closed in 1939. Frieda was faced with an agonizing choice: either bring Bill home or let him leave on a children’s transport. That was how Bill and his sister Tolla found themselves on a train platform crowded with other children, name tags sewn into their sweaters and ID cards around their necks, saying a tearful goodbye to their mother and sisters. Tolla was 11 or 12 years old and Bill was 9. He’d never see his mother again.
Bill and Tolla’s journey stopped at a chateau in Chaumont, France, where they stayed for two years. In his biography, Bill would remember only snatches of his time there: the huge tapestries on the wall, learning French with his sister, the underground trenches they’d shelter in during the German bombing runs. Once Paris fell in 1941, a worker from the International Red Cross arrived to escort 64 Jewish children south to Lyon, an arduous trip that involved bus rides punctuated by long stretches of walking, with never enough food and water. “For some reason while we were moving, we only had oranges but nothing else,” Bill remembered. “We had almost nothing else to eat.” By the time they arrived, Tolla, weak from malnutrition, was also sick with pneumonia, and Bill was told she’d have to stay behind in a hospital. “I was convinced that when things got better, she would get well,” Bill said. He never saw her again, either.
The dwindling numbers of children were led to Madrid and then Lisbon, where they were put on the ocean liner Serpa Pinto which took a circuitous journey to avoid German U-boats, stopping first in North Africa and then sailing across the Atlantic. When Bill landed in New York City’s Ellis Island on September 24, 1941, he was underweight, malnourished, and suffering from rickets. Of the 64 children who started the journey in France, only 11 made it to America. The children were sent to a facility in Pleasantville, NY, to wait while the Jewish Foster Home Bureau worked to place them in homes. Young Bill spent nine weeks at the dormitories there, cleaning himself up for each visit and getting rejected by prospective parents every time. He’d later say it was like being in a pet store.
In those intervening years, the rest of his immediate family was struggling for survival during the war. His mother was arrested and later transported to Auschwitz—Ester didn’t learn until after the war that she’d been killed on the way. Bill’s sister Tolla likely died in the hospital or sometime after that. His other sisters survived, though just barely: Ester, for one, was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 and wasn’t liberated until 1945.
Bill was eventually taken in by the Ehrenreichs, a middle-class family who lived on Montgomery Ave. in the Bronx, and he threw himself into the project of becoming an American, learning English, losing his accent, and immersing himself in a Bronx life of candy stores, schoolyard scrapes, and stickball. He discovered the movie theaters and stage shows of downtown Manhattan and learned how to dance to Latin music, even winning an amateur contest at the hot midtown nightspot, the Palladium. His name in America was “Bill.” He later changed “Grajonca” to the easier-to-pronounce “Graham”—a name he pulled out of the New York City telephone directory. Neither had any meaning to him. After a stint in the Army, he worked as a waiter and flirted with an acting career, drifting between San Francisco and New York, before producing his fateful first show at San Francisco’s hoary old dance hall, the Fillmore. Perhaps only someone who’d been through what he’d been through in his life could’ve so fully taken advantage of what his new country had to offer. “Bill was one of the great mavericks who redefined what freedom really meant in the U.S.A.,” wrote the Who’s Pete Townshend in the forward to Bill Graham Presents.
In a 2019 piece, San Francisco’s NPR station speculated about Graham’s odd habit of leaving a barrel of free apples in the lobby of the Fillmore before concerts, a tradition that continues to this day. Could it be connected to his years of starvation? His biographer Robert Greenfield countered that Graham wasn’t someone to dwell on the tragedies of his childhood: “Bill always lived in the moment. He wasn’t someone who was possessed by or living in the past.” It was a sentiment Graham himself expressed. “I have no answers as to why I’m this way,” he said in his biography. “You could say I should want to know who I was. No. Because what’s it gonna do for me?….I’m not saying it’s right. But I’ve never tried to dig up pictures of my past.”
See and hear more about Graham’s meteoric rise in the rock scene at New-York Historical’s exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution (on view Feb. 15)
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor