50 years ago, promoter Bill Graham opened the doors on one of the world's most famous concert venues.
John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Published March 9, 2018
Published 3 months ago
The story of rock music can be told as a procession of groundbreaking artists (Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, The Clash), landmark songs (“Rocket 88,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), or ardent fandoms (Beatlemaniacs, metalheads, punks). But it can also be told as a chronicle of cherished venues — that scattering of special places, many of them long since gone, where artists, songs, and fans have come together in particularly intense and memorable ways. In any such telling, Bill Graham’s Fillmore East auditorium would be a monumental figure.
The Fillmore East opened on March 8, 1968 and closed on June 28, 1971. In that brief span, it hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, B.B. King, and Jefferson Airplane, as well as hundreds of smaller acts that helped make the Fillmore a bustling hub of youth culture in lower Manhattan, even if they never made much of a name for themselves. Here, we take a look back at the Fillmore on the 50th anniversary of its opening.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty ImagesBill Graham PresentsThe Fillmore East and its San Francisco sibling, the Fillmore West, were run by concert promoter Bill Graham. Graham was born in Berlin and raised in the Bronx. In the 1960s he made his way to the Bay Area, where he started organizing shows for the Grateful Dead and others, more or less inventing "the rock-concert business." He returned to New York in 1968 to open the Fillmore East in an old movie theater at 2nd Avenue and 6th Street in Manhattan’s East Village. Graham’s auditorium seated roughly 2,700 concert-goers, and (Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band claimed) the “acoustics were nearly perfect.”
Elliott Landy/RedfernsOpening NightThe hall opened on March 8, 1968, a Friday. Albert King (pictured), Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Tim Buckley all played. Triple bills like this were de rigueur at the Fillmore, which held two shows every Friday and Saturday night, one at 8 p.m. and one at 11 p.m. (Acts performed four times per two-night engagement.)GAB Archive/RedfernsHouse BandThe Allman Brothers played the Fillmore so often that they became known as Bill Graham’s “house band,” and in the spring of 1971 they played a string of six shows that became the basis of the live album “At Fillmore East,” their first gold record. The Allmans weren’t the only band that loved the venue: many other artists, including Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Laura Nyro, Neil Young, and Frank Zappa, recorded live albums there.Elliott Landy/RedfernsJohnny 3. GoodeIn 1969, rock-and-roll trailblazer Chuck Berry played not one, not two, but three separate engagements at the Fillmore East — on February 15, June 5, and October 3.
David Fenton/Getty ImagesNo More Ball and ChainJanis Joplin also performed three times at the Fillmore — twice as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and once as a solo act. “NEW BAND LIBERATES JOPLIN BLUES SOUND,” proclaimed the headline of the New York Times review of her solo performance in February 1969. “Miss Joplin has never been better.”Elliott Landy/RedfernsFit for a KingBluesman B.B. King played the Fillmore four times between 1969 and 1971.Frank Mastropolo/Corbis via Getty ImagesPurple HazeJimi Hendrix's "Band of Gypsys" was recorded at the Fillmore East on New Year's Day, 1970, and released in March of that year.
Yale Joel/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesN.Y. MenThe Doors only performed at the Fillmore once, shortly after it opened, but LIFE magazine was on hand to document the event for "Wicked Go The Doors," a feature that ran in its April 1968 issue. In the words of LIFE writer Fred Powledge: "The Doors' music ... is satanic, sensual, demented and full of acid when you first hear it, and it becomes even more so when you play it over and over again.”Gijsbert Hanekroot/RedfernsPinball WizardsOn October 20, 1969, The Who kicked off an unprecedented week-long run at the Fillmore to promote their rock opera “Tommy."Fred W. McDarrah/Getty ImagesWhere There's SmokeOn May 16, 1969, the Fillmore was evacuated when a three-alarm fire broke out in the building next door. No injuries were reported, and the venue only suffered smoke damage.
Sherry Rayn Barnett/Getty ImagesHavens in a Heartless WorldBorn and raised in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Richie Havens earned a reputation for the creative folk-and-rock covers he performed along with his poetry in Greenwich Village clubs in the 1960s. A New York Times reviewer who attended Havens' November 1968 shows at the Fillmore wrote that he "creates an aura that is perfect therapy for jangled urban nerves."Elliott Landy/RedfernsThey Pulled Into ManhattanIn May 1969, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, and the rest of The Band spent a weekend "cooly circulating mountain air through the Fillmore East."Frank Mastropolo/Corbis via Getty ImagesYou Can Make It If You TrySly and the Family Stone first appeared at the Fillmore East as an opening act for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968. They came back the next year as headliners.
Frank Mastropolo/Corbis via Getty ImagesCity in the SkyWhen the Staple Singers took the stage at the Fillmore East in August 1968, the New York Times reported, they "had the theater converted into a fundamentalist church with their jubilant, frenetic, poignant religious and topical-protest songs.” The Staples were a favorite of Bill Graham. "Mavis Staples for me was in the same class as Aretha,” he said.Elliott Landy/RedfernsThe Joshua Light ShowThe sounds of the Fillmore East were incomparable, but the sights came close. Joshua White, a former television producer turned multimedia artist, regularly turned the venue into a psychedic wonderland. "We had a twenty-by-thirty foot screen," he told the New Yorker in 1971. "The screen would be behind the performer, like a moving background.... I would have hundreds of effects .... Flowing liquids. Dozens of slides. A multimedia movie. A film loop of a girl moving her body, for instance, that kept repeating itself. It was all arbitrary in the sense that it was never rehearsed. But I was always listening to the music and doing things for it. I was always subservient to the music."
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
The Fillmore wasn't just a concert hall. On May 20, 1968, the Black Panther Party sponsored "an evening of plays, films, and speeches" to raise bail for Eldridge Cleaver and six other party members. The poet Amiri Baraka (L) and Black Panther Party Communications Secretary Kathleen Cleaver (R) both spoke.
New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Jack Robinson/Getty Images
Fridays and Saturdays were the biggest nights, but the Fillmore drew crowds to its box office (L) and main entrance (R) at 105 2nd Avenue all week long.
Blank Archives/Getty ImagesAmateur NightTuesday was amateur night at the Fillmore, and tickets went for $1.50 — about $10 in today's money.Fred W. McDarrah/Getty ImagesShutting the DoorAs bands and their managers embraced larger venues — and the larger box-office revenues they generated — Graham decided to close down the Fillmore East (and West). "The sole incentive of too many," he said, "has simply become money. The conditions for such performances, besides lacking intimacy, are professionally impossible, according to my standards.”
New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty ImagesEnd of an EraThe last show at the Fillmore East started at 8 p.m. on Sunday, June 27, 1971. Albert King, the Allman Brothers, Mountain, the J. Geils Band, the Beach Boys, and Country Joe McDonald all performed. There were "several thousand dollars of free food and beer on hand" for the "dramatic invitation only party," which lasted through the night and well into Monday morning, winding down after 4 a.m. "Nobody's going to believe me," a police officer on the scene told the New York Times, "but I'm going to miss the joint.”Bobby Bank/WireImageDon't It Always Seem To GoToday, the stretch of 2nd Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets is known as Bill Graham's Way. The building that had housed the Fillmore — and then the Saint, "an elaborate disco that was a center of gay night life," from 1980 to 1988 — was demolished in 1995. Commercial and residential buildings rose on the site, and by 1997, Emigrant Savings Bank had opened a branch in the space that had formerly served as the Fillmore's box office. Apple Bank for Savings, the current occupant, took it over some years later.
In other words, they paved paradise, and put up an Apple Bank.