Bill Graham's Stairway to Heaven...
Near Vallejo, California
October 25, 1991
Running Against the Wind...
He was born "Wolfgang Grajonca" in Berlin, and fled the Nazis at the age of
eleven. He was later adopted by an American family in New York City (much of his
family died in the Holocaust). After being taunted as an immigrant and
being called a Nazi because of his German-accented English, Graham changed his
name ("Graham" was found in the phonebook, it was closest to his real surname "Grajonca."
After finishing high school, Graham joined the Army during the Korean War,
where he had a mixed record - he was court-martialed twice for minor violations
but went on to receive both the Bronze Star and Purple heart in combat.
After the war, he held a series of odd jobs, and earned a
degree in business administration from the City College of New York. In
1964, he became the business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and began
to organize various benefit performances. He gained fame in the 1960s
presenting concerts at the Fillmore theater in San Francisco, and later at its
East Coast spin-off, the Fillmore East in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
He also launched the careers of musicians like Rolling Stones, Jefferson
Airplane, Santana, George Harrison, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers
Band, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Joan
Baez. He had even "gone Hollywood" with a bit role in the Francis Ford
Coppola film "Apocalypse Now" as a promoter (but for a set of Playboy Bunnies).
But his heart was in social and political charity work -
organizing benefit concerts like the 1985 Live Aid concert to fight famine, the
1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour, and the 1988 Human Rights Now international tour
for Amnesty International.
The Coming Storm...
The week before had been extremely eventful in the San Francisco Bay area. A
large urban fire, later known as the Oakland Hills Firestorm, occurred in the
hillsides of northern Oakland, California and southeastern Berkeley on Sunday,
October 20th, 1991, almost exactly two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
An incompletely extinguished grass fire in the Berkeley Hills from the day
prior re-ignited that Sunday morning and, fueled dry vegetation and high winds
in excess of 60 knots, the resulting conflagration overwhelmed the local
firefighters. Other fire departments joined in the effort to combat the
fire and, by the following morning, the fire had been contained. But not
until the fire had killed 25 people, injured 150, and destroyed 1,520 acres,
including 2,449 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units
totaling an economic loss of roughly $1.5 billion.
Service Before Self...
Graham had attended a "Huey Lewis and The News" concert at the Concord
Pavilion, to discuss promoting a benefit concert for the victims of the Oakland
firestorm. Landing in the "F" parking lot shortly after 8 PM, a van picked Graham,
and his entourage, up to drive him to the backstage. Once backstage, he
went to work.
He obtained a commitment from the band to perform at the benefit for the
Oakland firestorm victims, and, after shooting the breeze with several Pavilion
staffers and his pilot, Steve Kahn, he set on returning to his helicopter, a Bell 206B
"Jet Ranger", owned by Corporate Mobility Inc., and registered as N3456M,
along with Graham's girlfriend, Melissa Gold.
But Graham was stopped by the bass player from the News, Mario Cippolina, who, in a moment of foresight,
noted the poor weather, and suggested that Graham to take his limousine.
Concord Pavilion general manager John Toffoli also recommended that Graham take a rental car
home to Marin, and noticed a peculiar detail to Graham's attire that night...
"One of the ironic things I remember was he was putting on his jacket, and
he turned around to say goodbye, and he was wearing a 'Lynyrd Skynyrd' jacket." In 1977, the band 'Lynyrd Skynyrd' endured a
plane crash that killed several
of its members and staff.
Nevertheless, Graham's helicopter left the Concord Pavilion at around 9:45 PM,
bound for his home in Corte Madera. The
weather was rainy and cold, with low clouds. Upon departure, the pilot
received a Special VFR clearance through the airspace of Concord's Buchanan
Field, and departed to the northwest.
Since the pilot was familiar
with the geographic area, he flew the helicopter using a technique known as "pilotage"
- flying from one fixed point to another. Near State Highway 37, west of
Vallejo, witnesses observed the helicopter paralleling a highway at about 200
feet above the ground, dodging the clouds.
Flying at a low altitude, in weather reported as low overcast, rain and gusty winds, the aircraft
flew directly into a 223-foot high-voltage transmission tower along State Highway 37, which runs
between Vallejo and Marin County, and just 20 miles from the concert site, at
9:56 PM, killing all three aboard.
"Weather certainly played a part," said Lt. Mike Ferguson, a
Sonoma County Sheriffs deputy. "There was a lot of fog and apparently the
pilot was looking for an opening in the fog... dipping up and down in hopes of
finding an opening," he said.
Workers used a large crane to clear away the wreckage. The main
part of the helicopter had welded itself to the 115,000-volt tower, fusing it
far above the ground, Ferguson said.
The copter remained suspended in power lines the following day,
to allow investigators to find the
cause of the crash. Officials with Pacific Gas and
Electric said 23,000 homes in the Vallejo area were without power for most of the night
of the crash, and a stretch of State Highway 37 near the transmission tower remained closed
for a few days afterwards.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the
probable cause of the accident was, "The pilot's intentional flight into known
adverse weather, continued flight into instrument meteorological conditions, and
improper altitude. Contributing to the accident was low ceilings, poor
visibility, and restricted visual lookout."
Following his death, his company, Bill Graham Presents (BGP), was taken over by a
group of employees. Graham's sons, David and Alexander Graham, were not part of the new management team,
and left the venture.
new owners then went on to sell the company to SFX promotions. SFX then sold the
company to Clear Channel Entertainment. The BGP staff never embraced the Clear
Channel name, and several members of the BGP staff eventually left the company,
including former President/CEO Gregg Perloff and former Senior Vice President
Sherry Wasserman, who went on to start their own company, Another Planet
Eventually Clear Channel divested it's investment in concert
production altogether. Bill Graham Presents, along with other independent
promoters previously held under SFX, formed Live Nation and are now the largest
concert production/promotion company in the world.
The San Francisco Civic Auditorium was renamed for Graham as a tribute
memorial service, called 'Laughter, Love & Music', was held
for Graham, Gold, and Kahn, at the Polo Fields in San
Francisco's Golden Gate Park on November 3rd, 1991, attracting a crowd of
350,000, one of the biggest
crowds the park had ever seen. Many of the bands Graham had been
instrumental in supporting played the venue, Santana, a reunited Journey,
Los Lobos, a reunited CSNY, the Dead (with guests John Fogerty, John Popper and
Neil Young), Robin Williams, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Bobby McFerrin, Jackson
Browne, Joe Satriani with Randy Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Aaron Neville with
Evylyn Cisneros of the SF Ballet, and Joan Baez.
Some Bay Area residents still refer to the crash as "the Night the Music Died."