Meet the concert promoter who fled Nazis and boosted careers of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix

Meet the concert promoter who fled Nazis and boosted careers of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix

It may only be rock ’n’ roll, but it was enough to get legendary concert promoter Bill Graham top billing at a new exhibit in his old Upper West Side ’hood.

The late music impresario — who had a hand in everything from the Fillmore East rock club in the East Village to major Rolling Stones tours and the Live Aid benefit — is being celebrated with a groovy retrospective at the New-York Historical Society. “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” running through Aug. 23, takes place just blocks away from 8 W. 86th St., where Graham once lived.

“I have this image of him walking on Central Park West, looking at our building and saying, ‘One day, my life story will be in here,’ ” says curator Cristian Petru Panaite. And now — 29 years after his death, at age 60, in a helicopter crash — Graham has finally arrived.

Although his musical reach extended all around the world, his New York roots give this exhibit a fitting home before it heads to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where Graham was a non-performer inductee in 1992. His early years as a child refugee from Nazi Germany, where he was born Wolfgang Grajonca, are covered in photos with the Bronx family who adopted him, along with his yearbook from DeWitt Clinton HS.

Bill Graham exhibitGlenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society

“It’s such a rich and touching story — arriving here weighing 50 or 55 pounds, full of rickets, and then finding a family in New York,” Panaite tells The Post. “He saw the Statue of Liberty when he arrived on the Serpa Pinto in September of 1941.”

But the exhibit really finds its rhythm as it moves into Graham’s years as a young concert promoter in 1960s San Francisco, showcasing psychedelic posters from the Fillmore Auditorium and the Fillmore West — many done by artist Wes Wilson — that dip you right inside a lava lamp.

The original marquee letters from the Fillmore East, which opened in March 1968, hang above a display that also includes the wristwatch with two time zones that Graham wore as he traveled from coast to coast to his different venues. Also taking you inside the Fillmore East experience is a special installation on the Joshua Light Show, which served as a trippy backdrop for the likes of The Doors and The Who.

“Bill pretty much gave New York the church of rock ’n’ roll in the Fillmore East,” Panaite says of the club, which closed in 1971. “The day before we opened, I got four phone calls from New Yorkers . . . telling me that they were at the Fillmore East when they fell in love with their spouse.”

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit at the New York Historical Society.
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit at the New York Historical Society.Brian Zak/NY Post

Sections of the exhibit are devoted to some of the rock gods Graham helped launch into immortality, both as a promoter and a manager. Among the personal gems are Janis Joplin’s tambourine and microphone used at a Fillmore Auditorium performance and Jimi Hendrix’s patchwork suede-and-snakeskin coat.

Adding to the cool factor of it all, you can immerse yourself in a four-hour playlist — on headphones, of course, to keep the rocking out to yourself — that is location-activated to sync up with the displays. That means when you get to the Live Aid portion, you’ll hear “State of Shock” by Tina Turner and Mick Jagger, “Into the Groove” by Madonna and “Refugee” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

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Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Brian Zak/NY Post

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Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Brian Zak/NY Post

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Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Brian Zak/NY Post

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Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Brian Zak/NY Post

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“The visitor is engulfed by music as they walk through the show, as they learn about the music [Graham] loved as well as the artists he championed,” says Panaite.

Live Aid is just one of Graham’s benefit concerts remembered here. His tours in support of Amnesty International — A Conspiracy of Hope in 1986 and Human Rights Now! in 1988 — are also represented, as is 1990’s mammoth show For a Free South Africa, which welcomed Nelson Mandela to the Oakland Coliseum in California.

While those New Year’s Eve shows with the Grateful Dead were crazy fun, when all is said and sung, Graham’s philanthropic work may be his greatest legacy. “I think visitors will get a really good understanding of how giving he was,” says Panaite. “There really was social change that had a positive impact. He was a phone call away to help.”

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