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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.

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.

The 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 Entertainment.

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

A 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."


 

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