That Time Promoter Bill Graham Was Honored With All-Star Concert
On Nov. 3, 1991, some of rock's most popular acts — and hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents — turned up at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to honor the life and legacy of concert promoter Bill Graham.
Graham, killed Oct. 25 in a helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of his girlfriend, Melissa Gold, and their pilot, Steve Kahn, was a towering figure in the music industry — particularly in and around San Francisco, where he'd built his concert promotion empire while nurturing a slew of artists that included Carlos Santana, Journey, the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — all of whom were part of the incredible bill lined up for a free event dubbed the Bill Graham Memorial: Laughter, Love and Music.
The fact that Journey and CSNY were there spoke volumes. The former group hadn't played together since concluding their tour in support of 1986's Raised on Radio, and the latter hadn't performed with on-and-off member Neil Young since reuniting to make 1988's American Dream LP. But like the other artists assembled that day, they owed Graham too much to let personal differences keep them from the stage.
A reported crowd of 300,000 was on hand to witness the show, which ran roughly five and a half hours and also included performances from Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Joe Satriani, John Fogerty and Living Colour — as well as appearances from artists outside the rock spectrum, such as Bobby McFerrin, who performed the national anthem, and Robin Williams, who served as emcee and loosened up the audience by making them do the wave.
"I wonder if Bill's in heaven organizing a show," Williams quipped. "He's up there saying, 'Hey, Elvis, you're on next."
Just as impressive as the lineup and the crowd was the speed with which the event came together — particularly considering it was assembled by grieving staff at the company Graham built. "The only place you can do something like this on six days notice is San Francisco," an admiring Gregg Perloff, executive vice president of Bill Graham Presents, told the Los Angeles Times. "The community has always supported our efforts and you have to give something back to the community."
But if the show was, on one level, an effort to give back to the community, it was still ultimately about honoring Graham's legacy, and his dogged — and ultimately successful — efforts to build an industry out of a phenomenon once dismissed as a passing fad for kids. Surveying the crowd, David Crosby remarked that he hadn't seen the park's Polo Field so packed since the days of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, a telling reference to a time when a number of the artists assembled delivered some of their best-known work. Looking back, it's still somewhat remarkable that it came together the way it did — and yet, given that was a Bill Graham Presents production paying tribute to the man himself, not so surprising at all.
"Bill’s spirit will make it all happen," Santana assured the San Francisco Examiner in the days leading up to the event. "There will be no problem."