|Historic Music Venues: The Fillmore West
By Pauline France
There are concert halls, arenas and amphitheaters, and then there was the Fillmore West. This legendary San Francisco venue was more than just a music hall; it was a quintessential destination for music lovers and thrill seekers alike.
The Fillmore phenomenon did not occur overnight. Built in 1912, the original Fillmore started life as the Majestic Hall on the corner of Fillmore St. and Geary Blvd. in San Francisco, where people attended social nights and masquerade balls. It served as a dance hall in the 1930s and even a roller rink in the 1940s before local entrepreneur Charles Sullivan began booking R&B acts including James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ike and Tina Turner there in the early 1950s.
In 1965, charismatic impresario and concert promoter Bill Graham took over the venue, known by then as Fillmore Auditorium; it is he who can be credited for the venue’s unprecedented success. After two years at the original location, Graham moved the Fillmore in summer 1968 to the Carousel Ballroom, at intersection of Market St. and South Van Ness Ave., and dubbed the venue the Fillmore West. It was there that he experienced his concert production heyday, presenting a stellar array of rock and R&B acts over the next several years.
History in the Making
The holder of a Fillmore West ticket was in for quite a treat. In very short order, Graham presented acts including Chuck Berry, Buffalo Springfield, Richie Havens, Muddy Waters and Cream. The Byrds, Santana, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Miles Davis and the Who also played memorable shows there.
For some, it wasn’t even about the music; it was the entire Fillmore West experience itself that Graham so masterfully created.
“The greatest compliment I was ever given came at the Fillmore,” Graham once said. “It was Cream and the Butterfield Blues Band. I just happened to go into the rest room during a break. I was standing at the middle urinal when two guys came in after me, one on either side … right out of the blue, one said, ‘I forgot. Who’s playing here tonight?’ Without batting an eyelash, the other guy said, ‘I don’t know, man. What’s the difference? It’s the Fillmore.’”
Cream began its first U.S. tour at Fillmore West, and Eric Clapton attested to the supercharged Fillmore vibes.
“There was very much a whole kind of Fillmore energy coming off the audience that combined with the band,” Clapton said. “When we played the Fillmore for the first time, the band was in the light show. If you were in the audience, you didn’t know who was playing. Not at all. It was a sensory thing.”
Several acts, including the Grateful Dead, King Curtis and Aretha Franklin, recorded live albums at Fillmore West (click here for a complete list of Fillmore West live concerts and interviews).
After four years of explosive rock shows, Graham had grown weary of the rock world and closed the Fillmore West’s doors, thus marking the end of an era.
“Once a group becomes popular, they are no longer a local group,” Graham said in a 1971 Sarasota Herald-Tribune interview. “When they’re small, they want to play for the people, do benefits. When they become famous, they become capitalists. The community-mindedness of the rock community doesn’t exist.”
Graham told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune he noticed a change in attendees, too.
“They are younger and their attitude has changed,” he said. “There’s not the same joy, the same sharing of pleasure there used to be.”
The final Fillmore West show took place July 4, 1971. The bill that night included Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service (listen below to Creedence Clearwater Revival performing “Bad Moon Rising” during the Fillmore West’s closing show).
Graham returned to the concert promotion business later in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, but perished in a tragic helicopter accident in 1991, leaving behind a remarkable musical legacy.
The Fillmore West building still stands at the corner of South Van Ness Ave. and Market St., and is now a car dealership.
Trivia Note: Famous comedian Lenny Bruce held what would be his final show on June 25, 1966 on a shared bill with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Listen to more Creedence Clearwater Revival at Wolfgang’s Vault.