Musicians and Crew Recall the Glorious 3-Year Run of The Fillmore East in New Oral History

The Fillmore East was called “The Church of Rock and Roll” for good reason; between 1968 and 1971, promoter Bill Graham made music history as he brought the cream of rock royalty to New York audiences in astounding triple-artist bills with ticket prices ranging from $3.50 – $5.50.  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana and The Allman Brothers were just some of the stars that graced the stage, with several recording classic live albums at the Lower East Side venue.

Fillmore East: Photo © Jeff Rothstein

Interestingly, Graham also served as a catalyst for expanding the tastes of impressionable young music lovers in New York and abroad.  He accomplished this by using the popular rock headliners to introduce audiences to the more eclectic artists he loved and booked as show openers.  These were the cutting-edge names in jazz, soul, R&B and folk music, from Miles Davis, Buddy Rich and Mongo Santamaria to B.B. and Albert King and The Staple Singers.  It all ended when rock became a big business, when concerts and Graham himself moved onto larger stages.

New light is now being cast on this institution’s brief run and lasting impact in an in-depth and soulful new book by veteran journalist Frank Mastropolo, Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock History

Like Legs McNeil’s punk history classic, Please Kill Me, Mastropolo’s new work is an oral history told by 90 of the musicians and crewmembers who lived through the fast times at this pioneering concert hall. Roger McGuinn, Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Robert Lamm, Dave Davies, John Lodge, Nils Lofgren, Dave Mason and Steve Miller are among the 19 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees who contributed to the book, along with Fillmore crew like lightshow pioneer Joshua White and East Village scenesters like media prankster/artist Joey Skaggs. The book also boasts dozens of remarkable performance photos (many taken by the author himself), along with posters, letters, buttons, contracts and memorabilia, many never before published. 

Mastropolo begins with backstory and history of the theater that would become The Fillmore East, The Commodore, and its place as a centerpiece of Yiddish Theater and vaudeville beginning in the 1920s. Rock enters the picture in 1967, when it becomes The Village Theater and hosts a handful of rock concerts by Cream, Procol Harum, The Yardbirds and The Grateful Dead.  With the success of his San Francisco-based Fillmore West, Graham decides to buy and re-open it as The Fillmore East. The debut show comes on March 8, 1968, with a triple-bill featuring Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, blues great Albert King and folk rocker Tim Buckley. 

The heart of Mastropolo’s book are the remarkable first-person reminiscences of the artists who played there and their contrasting memories of the mercurial empresario who ran it. 

Janis Joplin: Photo by Frank Mastropolo

Creedence Clearwater Revival drummer Doug Clifford recalls a night where the audience demanded a remarkable 17 encores. It was an unprecedented occasion, one that Graham commemorated by gifting each member of the band an inscribed gold watch.  Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico recalls Graham’s initial reticence about booking his band, saying of the Fillmore audience: “My people don’t dance!” Then teenaged Television guitarist Richard Lloyd recalls how easy it was to get past the virtually non-existent security to visit Jimi Hendrix, in his dressing room. Chicago’s keyboardist Robert Lamm is one of many artists in the book who think the Fillmore East’s position as the first-choice venue of rockers was a product of its first-rate sound, lighting and staff. 

Jorma Kaukonen credits the birth of his and bass player Jack Casady’s Jefferson Airplane offshoot, the acoustic Delta blues based Hot Tuna, to the Fillmore East. “I think the Hot Tuna as a band that the public saw was certainly born at the Fillmore East,” relates Kaukonen. “Jack and I had been messing around in hotels for years, with him playing his bass through a tiny amp and me playing acoustic guitar. My recollection about this is that Paul (Kanter) just out of the blue said – ‘Why don’t you guys go out and play an acoustic song?’  That’s how we were given the opportunity to play and display it in front of other people for the first time.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Frank Zappa and the Mothers: Photo by Dr. Arlene Q. Allen and Ben Haller

Steve Miller recalls the tumult of one of his performances, when his band followed British novelty act Mungo Jerry of “In the Summertime” fame.  The fun-loving show openers made the not-so-wise decision of giving 500 kazoos to the boisterous NYC audience, who then jammed along uninvited during Miller’s set. Also recalled is the May 1969 concert where The Who performed their rock opera Tommy in its entirety.  The performance was briefly interrupted when a fire broke out at a neighboring supermarket and Pete Townsend attacked a police officer who was attempting to get on stage to command the audience to exit.

Jimi Hendrix: Photo by Frank Mastropolo

Many of the musicians featured remark on the epic lengths of the shows, ones that would often culminate in jams that would go on until 6 a.m. and beyond.  Also remembered were the post-show meals at Ratner’s, the adjacent 24-hour restaurant manned by surly waiters made even more so by the paltry tips given by Fillmore staff and its cash-strapped young audience.  Also are the first-person memories of the many live recordings made at the venue. This just begins with classic sets by The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys, Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds and New York’s own mighty Mountain. 

The backstage crew who cut their teeth at the Fillmore East, including managing directors John Morris and Kip Cohen and stage manager Chip Monck, would go on to play important roles at various record labels, radio stations and, especially, with other huge concert tours and festivals including Woodstock.  

Graham and the above were at Woodstock.  There they witnessed how rock was turning into a very big business, where he couldn’t compete with a 2,700-seat theater. 

Pete Townsend of The Who: Photo by Frank Mastropolo

In the book, Mastropolo relates the math.  Where an artist could command $75,000 for a single show at Madison Square Garden, Graham could only provide $25,000, for four performances over two days.  According to the book, Graham also didn’t care for the new generation of bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper and their cocaine-fueled attitudes and demands and their “stockbroker” greed.  He and his staff were also tired of “cleaning up vomit,” something produced by the Fillmore audience’s switch from weed and psychedelics to red wine and downs.  There was also sadness that Graham could not replicate the 1968 opening lineup for the June 1971 closing weekend, as both Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley were both gone.

Allman Brothers Band: Photo by Ben Haller

The book concludes with a tour of the afterlife of the Fillmore East site.  This included a brief attempt to resurrect the name as NFE (The New Fillmore East) and The Village East. There was also its eight-year stint as the site of the gay disco, The Saint, followed by its life as an Emigrant Bank and, finally, the condo of today.

Frank Mastropolo in Greenwich Village, 1968: Photo by Tony Gulisano

Mastropolo’s book will provide a boatload of memories for those lucky enough to have been there and a motherload of info for those too young to enjoy rock’s most classic temple of sound.

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