1969 was a momentous year for the Fillmore and for its owner Bill Graham, after a difficult start, it quickly became the place to play for every major rock band. By the end of January, Led Zeppelin had played their first shows in support of Iron Butterfly and just days before Jethro Tull had done the same as second on the bill to Al Kooper’s new jazz/rock venture Blood Sweat & Tears. Within four months Zep were back as headliners as they stormed back and forth across America, blowing everyone away as they did so.
Bill Graham’s empire was expanding apace. He decided to set up and fund two record labels – well why have one when you can have two – Fillmore Records and San Francisco Records under CBS & Atlantic’s wing. There was also the Millard Agency and a management company called Shady Management. Typically for the times, these got set up, funded and then largely forgotten.
The only act on Fillmore Records was an obscure band called Aum, on San Francisco Records you could find the great jazzy rock band Cold Blood and funky hornmeisters Tower Of Power as well as one record by a band called Hammer. None of which sold much and can’t have made Fillmore Corp any money. But not to worry because both East & West Fillmore’s were packed to the rafters and cash was pouring in.
In New York they started opening midweek in February putting The Dead on with Janis, then later in April a triple header with Ten Years After topping the bill above The Nice and Family in an all British show.
But there was one band Bill really wanted to book but had been unable to. Ever since Music From The Big Pink had come out, he’d been a huge fan of The Band. Early in ’69 word on the grapevine was that the eponymous follow-up was very, very hot. The Band hadn’t played live without Dylan and being laid back types were in no hurry to do so, which just upped the mystique of course. But it was snowy in Woodstock where they lived so the offer of $25,000 a gig to play at The Winterland Ballroom – another Bill Graham venue – in San Francisco – plus the warmer west coast winter persuaded them to do it. $25k was a lot of money – The Band had been offered five or six grand a night previously.
The show went down well despite Robbie Robertson needing to have psychotherapy to get out of bed! Three weeks later they were playing the Fillmore East to huge acclaim.
The Who debuted Tommy and for the first time the venue opened all week long to accommodate them. From Monday 20th August to Saturday 26th, they played every night supported by new proggers King Crimson and the aforementioned Aum. By all accounts it was considered a mutual honour by both parties. Bill and his team being big fans of the Who and of Pete Townshend – one of rock n roll’s more thoughtful people – and the band had recognized early the prestige of showcasing the album at the hippest of venues.
The whole Fillmore team were now the go-to people for organizing rock n roll, so it was no surprise that the Woodstock organiser Michael Lang got them on board to advise them. Chip Monck did the whole staging of the event for them as well as the MC-ing “I was scared shit-less,” he later said. Bill had spotted they were ‘rank amateurs’ but liked the radical nature of the event. He helped put in a good word with bands, and advised them on legal stuff and organisation in return for a place on the bill for his favourites Santana at prime time on Saturday.
As his role was strictly advisory, he made few criticisms, and rather just tried to be supportive. However, privately he was horrified by many things – especially the quality of the sound – which he prided himself on at the Fillmore East – describing Santana’s set as ‘background music for a Tarzan movie,’ the congas being the only noise to travel any distance. But when it came to the movie, Bill got 35,000 dollars from Warner Brothers for Santana’s appearance, because they looked and sounded so great.
The Allmans turned up late in the year to play for the first time and jaws dropped at just how good they were. Alan Arkush who worked for Bill at the time blew the whole of the day’s budget on wine for the band because they didn’t want beer. When they played again 6 weeks later, everyone got dosed up with Owsley’s Acid. A tape exists of a jam between Peter Green – Fleetwood Mac was in town – Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia. All of them higher than God.
The Allmans would go on to record their legendary live album at the Fillmore that year. And to listen to it now is to hear a band almost psychically inter-linked.
With Woodstock catapulting the counter-culture music onto the front page, the Fillmore hosted many of the big stars from the festival within weeks. Ten Years After were back in early September, as were CSNY, The Who, Mountain, Country Joe & The Fish, Santana and finally, closing the year Jimi Hendrix who played the New Year shows supported by the Voices Of East Harlem. Everyone got a tambourine for the new year show – can’t imagine health and safety would allow that now! Jimi brought in the 1970s wrestling Auld Lang Syne out of feedback. This Hendrix gig was later to be released as a live album. Indeed, many if not almost all shows were recorded and were later used for live albums by the likes of The Dead, Mountain, Airplane, John Mayall, Santana and TYA. The new sound system designed by John Chester and put into place in the late summer of 1969 was state-of-the-art and coupled with the professional staffing of the venue meant bands often performed at their peak, to sizeable 2,500 plus passionate crowds.
But it wasn’t all good vibes. The year ended with the nightmare at Altamont in California – an event you can read about in our History of Festivals series. But back on the east coast rock n roll was going from strength to strength. Bands that just months earlier had been underground, unknowns became big selling touring bands selling out big tours. The British bands like Ten Years After, Zeppelin, The Who and even people such as Incredible String Band were capable of selling the Fillmore out. Blues in the form of BB King, Bobby Bland and Albert King, along with Johnny Winter and John Mayall was still hugely popular and burgeoning singer-songwriter era was already being ushered in by Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro as well as international superstars CSNY.
If you lived in NYC at the time you could see the great, good and genius of rock music week in week out at the Fillmore. In an extraordinary period the only touring band not to tread the boards of the Fillmore was the Stones.
So the 70s had arrived. The Fillmore had one good year left in it. And what a year for music it turned out to be. Read about in the final instalment of Live At The Fillmore