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Rockin' the Web

The late music promoter Bill Graham's trove of souvenirs and recordings strikes a chord online

November 12, 2006|John Corrigan | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — With their long hair and scruffy jeans, the rock fans queued up outside the Fillmore Auditorium could almost be mistaken for the throngs that flocked to this concert palace in the 1960s.

And just like in the old days, the bands they've come to see -- a heavy-metal triple helping of Goatwhore, High on Fire and Venom -- might trigger a few tsk-tsks from the over-30 crowd.

Goatwhore? Whatever happened to bands with class, like Foghat?

There are differences, to be sure -- rock fans in 2006 carry cellphones -- but entrepreneur Bill Sagan sees the similarities and is capitalizing on them.

Nearly 40 years after the Woodstock era, its music is enthralling legions of high-school and college-age fans who have Jimi Hendrix on their iPods and Neil Young T-shirts on their backs.

The leftover garments, concert posters and ticket stubs from rock's heyday are bringing top dollar, as a quick spin on EBay will attest.

Though scores of merchants and collectors are selling these remnants, Sagan has an inventory of unmatched provenance -- the posters, T-shirts, photos and paraphernalia amassed by the late Bill Graham, rock's leading promoter from the 1960s until his death in a 1991 helicopter crash.

Three years ago, Sagan launched a San Francisco-based company called Wolfgang's Vault to sell over the Internet the multitude of items Graham squirreled away over the years. Sagan used Graham's given name for the company to avoid confusion with evangelist Billy Graham.

Now, Sagan has something fresh to offer: thousands of hours of unreleased audio, video and film recordings from concerts Graham staged at the Fillmore and other venues as well as an archive of King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts broadcast on the radio.

On Friday, Sagan's company began streaming 300 of those concerts at www.wolfgangsvault.com. The roster stretches from the Allman Brothers to Led Zeppelin, and Sagan says it's just the beginning.

Although there is no cost to listen, fans who want a copy of the shows must await the outcome of talks with the artists and their labels before they can buy the recordings as paid downloads.

Although it's not yet clear how many concerts will ultimately be available for sale, rock cognoscenti agree that the collection is one of a kind.

"There are very few people who promoted concerts for the length of time that Bill Graham was doing it, or took the time and trouble to record everything," said Howard Cramer, curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

Indeed, starting in 1964, Graham promoted shows by just about every major touring band except for the Beatles, including Pink Floyd, the Who and the Rolling Stones, as well as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and Stevie Wonder. Unlike "bootlegs" surreptitiously recorded by fans, the Graham tapes were made directly from mixing boards.

Similar board tapes have been hoarded away in private collections, but nothing of this scope has ever been publicly released, said Jacob McMurray, senior curator of the Experience Music Project rock museum in Seattle.

"It's a huge archive that people would definitely die to listen to," McMurray said.

Sagan acquired the collection partly by being in the right place at the right time.

After three decades as a corporate executive, the longtime rock fan wanted to find a way into the entertainment business after the Minneapolis-based healthcare company he headed was acquired in 2001. Research told him that even someone with modest capital could get a toehold in the small but growing niche of rock memorabilia.

From a friend, Sagan learned that radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. was selling Graham's archives, which had changed hands several times after the promoter's death. For about $6 million, a San Francisco warehouse full of rock relics was his.

Graham, who was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin in 1931 and escaped Nazi Germany as a child, staged his first concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1964 as a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

In his ensuing career as rock's top impresario, he is said to have saved every extra ticket, every unsold T-shirt. He also saved the concert posters he commissioned, which have become prized examples of '60s psychedelia and are the Vault's bestselling merchandise.

The most expensive item with a price tag is a rare proof of a Hendrix poster -- depicting a "flying eyeball" and signed by artist Rick Griffin -- which sells for $11,028. The cheapest are $2 pins with pop stars' likenesses. There are 26,000 items in all, including water bottles (trendy in the '80s), gym bags emblazoned with famous names and even old magazines that Graham had packed away.

"I'm pretty impressed, as a competitor," said Darren Julien, whose West Hollywood company, Julien's Auctions, recently joined with Sotheby's to sell items owned by music diva Cher. "They've really got a treasure trove of stuff."

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