New York Historical Society presents ‘Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution’ exhibit, opening February 14

The New-York Historical Society presents the rock & roll world of Bill Graham (1931–1991),with an upcoming exhibit Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, on view February 14 – August 23, 2020. Located at the Central Park West museum and library, the exhibit focuses on the legacy of one of the most influential concert promoters of all time. 

Graham’s life and work as a legendary music impresario are on display alongside the biggest names in rock music whom he worked with, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. Graham launched the careers of countless music luminaries at his famed Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City. 

Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center, which debuted the exhibition in Los Angeles, this comprehensive retrospective of Graham’s life and career explores some of the 20th century’s momentous cultural transformations through the lens of rock & roll. Showcasing more than 300 objects—including rock memorabilia, photographs, and concert posters—the New-York Historical presentation, coordinated by Associate Curator of Exhibitions Cristian Petru Panaite, highlights Graham’s personal connections to New York. 

American guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix performs at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, February 1968.

Admission to the exhibition will be via timed-entry tickets and begins with a site-specific installation of “The Joshua Light Show,” the trailblazing liquid light show conceived in 1967 by multimedia artist Joshua White that served as a psychedelic backdrop to Graham’s concert productions in New York.  

Unique to New-York Historical is a special, immersive audio experience, providing a musical tour through the exhibition with songs by rock & roll superstars the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry, Blondie, David Bowie, Cream, the Doors, Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, KISS, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Tom Petty, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Carlos Santana, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, and Neil Young, among others. Included in the four-hour soundtrack available to visitors are also mambo hits by Tito Puente that Graham loved in his early years in New York. The audio experience is generously sponsored by luxury audio brand Master & Dynamic. A playlist of featured songs is available on Spotify

“Even though Bill Graham and the Fillmore East transformed the city’s music scene in the late 1960s, few know about Graham’s immigrant background and New York roots,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “We are proud to collaborate with our colleagues at the Skirball Cultural Center to present this exhibition in New York—Graham’s first American hometown—and to highlight his local experience. His rock & roll life was a pop-culture version of the American dream come true.”

“Master & Dynamic is proud to sponsor Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution in our hometown of New York City,” said Nathaniel Teichman, head of strategy & business development at Master & Dynamic. “We are committed to supporting the New York-Historical Society and to helping bring to life the story of Bill Graham, who transcended incredible odds after escaping the Nazis to become one of the most influential figures in rock history.”

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution begins with family snapshots of Graham’s experience as a Jewish emigrant from Nazi Germany and his journey to America. Born in Berlin as Wolfgang Grajonca, he arrived in New York at the age of 11 as part of a Red Cross effort to help Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. He lived with a foster family in the Bronx and spent his teenage years in New York City before being drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War. Graham relocated to San Francisco in the early 1960s as the hippie movement was growing and took over the lease on the Fillmore Auditorium, where he produced groundbreaking shows throughout the decade, including sold-out concerts by the Grateful Dead, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Doors, among many others. 

American blues musician, singer, songwriter, and guitarist B.B King smokes a cigarette, San Francisco, CA, 1967.

In 1968, Graham opened the Fillmore East on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, historically the heart of New York’s Jewish immigrant community, just as it was becoming a countercultural hub. During its three-year run, rock fans filled the 2,700-seat venue to hear the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and others. A highlight of the Fillmore East experience was “The Joshua Light Show,” a mesmerizing liquid light show, conceived by multimedia artist Joshua White, that played as the backdrop as bands performed; in this installation, specially created for the exhibition, a colorful explosion of choreographed artistic projections set to music greet visitors at the entrance of the exhibition.

Timed-entry tickets for Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution went on sale on December 20. Visit nyhistory.org.

A special family guide is available for young visitors to explore the exhibition, featuring activities like scavenger hunts, sketching prompts, and quizzes. During February School Vacation Week, kids create rock & roll-inspired crafts, and Sunday Story Time in the spring features music-themed books.

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