45 Years Ago: Legendary Concert Venue the Fillmore East Closes
Opened on March 8, 1968, Bill Graham's Fillmore East hosted rock royalty that included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead. Joe Cocker and the Allman Brothers Band recorded groundbreaking albums from its stage. But Graham, tired of the direction taken by the concert industry, closed the hall after an epic weekend that ended June 27, 1971.
The June 25-27 shows were headlined by the Allmans and featured bluesman Albert King, who had played the venue's debut show, and the J. Geils Band. The June 26 show closed with a marathon performance by the Allmans that lasted well into Sunday morning. "That was a special show," guitarist Dickey Betts told Rolling Stone. "We played until daylight that morning. I remember it was dark in there, and when they opened the door, the sun about knocked us down. We didn't realize we had played until seven, eight o'clock in the morning. Bill Graham just let us rattle and nobody said, 'We gotta cut the time.' It was just a really free kind of thing."
"We played for roughly seven straight hours with everything we had," added drummer Butch Trucks. "We played a three-hour set and then came back out. The feeling from the audience, not necessarily the volume, but the feeling was just so overwhelming that I just started crying. Then we got into a jam ... that lasted for four straight hours. Nonstop. And when we finished, there was no applause whatsoever. The place was deathly quiet. Someone got up and opened the doors, the sun came pouring in, and you could see this whole audience with a big s----eating grin on their face, nobody moving until finally they got up and started quietly leaving the place. I remember Duane [Allman] walking in front of me, dragging his guitar while I was just sitting there completely burned, and he said, 'Damn, it's just like leaving church.'"
"The next night Bill came running over, grabbed me around the neck so hard it hurt and said, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you, for that show,'" Trucks told Forbes. "'It made all the years of crap I had to put up with worth it.' And I’ll never forget what he said next: 'If I had my way, when you finished this morning I would be sealed up in my bubble and gone off to wherever I’m going.'"
The final show on June 27 was an invitation-only event. The show, marred by bomb scares earlier that day, was simulcast live by New York FM radio stations WNEW and WPLJ. The scheduled acts were joined by special guests Edgar Winter's White Trash, Mountain with Leslie West, Country Joe McDonald and the Beach Boys. The book Live at the Fillmore East & West offers a glimpse behind the scenes.
"After Mountain's set, the Beach Boys arrived backstage and unloaded their gear. Their road manager then informed Bill Graham that the Beach Boys would be closing the show.
"'And Bill didn't even look at him,' said Butch Trucks. 'He just said, "Well, you can go ahead and pack up your s--- and get out of here. I've got my closing act."'
"The Beach Boys then went on, playing songs from their new album Surf's Up, which received a cool reception from the audience. It wasn't until they played a medley of their old hits that they connected."
Graham introduced his headliners by saying, "In all my life I've never heard the kind of music that this group plays. The finest contemporary music. We're going to round it off with the best of them all – the Allman Brothers." "That was special," Gregg Allman wrote in My Cross to Bear. "I'd heard a rumor before that Bill had said of all the bands he'd ever worked with, we were his favorites, but I hadn't believed it. So when I heard him say that with my own two ears, I was elated."
In an open letter published in the The Village Voice dated April 29, 1971, Graham explained why he was closing the Fillmore East and its counterpart, San Francisco's Fillmore West. Graham cited a decline in both the quality of the acts available and the musical sophistication of the audience. Graham, tired of what he called "the abuse of many members of the public and press," hoped to enjoy more of his private life. Chief among Graham's complaints was "the unreasonable and totally destructive inflation of the live concert scene."
"In 1965 when we began the original Fillmore Auditorium, I associated with and employed 'musicians.' Now, more often than not, it's with 'officers and stockholders' in large corporations – only they happen to have long hair and play guitars. I acknowledge their success, but condemn what that success has done to some of them. I continue to deplore the exploitation of the gigantic-hall concerts, many of them with high-priced tickets. The sole incentive of too many has simply become money. The conditions for such performances, besides lacking intimacy, are professionally impossible according to my standards."
"The Fillmore East was everybody's favorite gig to play," Betts recalled on In the Studio. "It was the Carnegie Hall of rock 'n' roll. Bill Graham made a very great presentation of rock 'n' roll, with the light shows and the curtains and the presentation of the bands and the set changes. But the Fillmore East wasn't big enough to pay any of the bands what they made other places. I think the general feeling among anyone who played there was even though we could be playing somewhere else for three times the money, we'd rather come to the Fillmore East and play because it's such a great place to play."
It didn't take Graham long to bounce back. In December 1971 Graham presented the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden and went on to produce tours with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and George Harrison. On Oct. 25, 1991, Graham was killed when his helicopter hit an electrical tower near San Francisco.
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