19 October, 1991
It was a warm Saturday in San Francisco. At just after midday, a small brush fire was reported on a hillside at the end of Temescal Canyon. The Oakland Fire Department sent several engines plus helicopters to the location and, by just before seven in the evening, the fire was reportedly extinguished.
But Sunday morning brought the feared Diablo wind conditions to the area. The smouldering embers reignited and, fanned by the wind, the fire became the inferno known as the Oakland Hills firestorm, Hailed as “The Worst Fire In California History” by the New York Times, it killed 25 people and injured 150 others, destroying more than 3,000 homes and causing damage estimated at $1.5 billion. The fire raged throughout the wooded area, at one point destroying a whole neighbourhood of 1,800 homes in just a few minutes. It was brought under control on Wednesday, October 23, halted by 450 fire engines, 20 helicopters and 10 aircraft dropping huge amounts of water.
Bill Graham was horrified when he saw the conflagration on the TV news. The German-born impresario and concert promoter had moved to San Francisco in the early sixties and established both the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland Ballroom venues, launching grounds for such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and The Holding Company. On October 25, he decided he’d personally ask Huey Lewis and The News to participate in a benefit for the victims of the fire.
"Bill was the greatest promoter of all time."
The band was performing at the Concord Pavilion, Contra Costa County, about 25 miles east of Graham’s Marin County home. Lewis recalls: “Bill was super charming, he was the greatest promoter of all time. If you played one of this venues and you’d done well - business was good - he’d come backstage and schmooze you.”
Lewis proved enthusiastic about playing the date and, during the intermission, Graham and his girlfriend, Melissa Gold, eventually opted to head back to his Corte Madera home by helicopter, despite adverse weather conditions. Though News bassist Mario Cipollina offered Graham the use of his limousine, the promoter declined. “I’ll have you home in 15 minutes,” pilot Steve ‘Killer’ Kahn had informed him. Later, Federal investigators reported that Kahn was an experienced pilot but had no license to fly on instruments only and was warned by air traffic controllers not to attempt the trip because of the bad weather.
The warning should have been heeded. Driven off-course by wind and heavy rain, the Bell Jet Ranger aircraft crashed into a 223 foot high-voltage transmission tower, some 25 miles north-east of San Francisco, bursting into flames on impact and causing the deaths of the 60 year-old Graham, Gold and pilot Kahn. The remains of the stricken aircraft hung from the tower for more than a day after the accident.
Ten days later on November 3, San Francisco shrugged off the effects of the fire. It also marked the passing of the fallen promoter with a massive free concert at Golden Gate Park that attracted a crowd of 300,000. Of the Bill Graham Memorial show, the L.A. Times reported: “An airplane dropped hundreds of carnations on the crowd, beach balls bounced atop the throngs and the concert-goers – (which) ranged from tie-dyed flower children to men in Bermuda shorts toting video cameras - appeared more intent on celebrating life than mourning loss.”
"I wonder if Bill’s in heaven now organising a show? …saying, ‘Hey, Elvis - you’re on next!"
Onstage, a cast that included John Fogerty, Santana, CSNY, Journey, Joan Baez, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Tracy Chapman, Bobby McFerrin, members of Los Lobos and Robin Williams paid tribute to the man who’d had such an impact on their lives and careers. It was jazz voice McFerrin who really sparked the five and a half-hour shindig with opening, scat-decorated rendition of the US National Anthem. The Grateful Dead played Sugar Magnolia from their American Beauty LP because it was Bill’s favourite Dead song. And Robin Williams, who greeted the crowd with a shouted “Yo, Bill!”, spoke of the many musicians who had already departed this life and considered how Bill Graham might still flourish in new surroundings. “I wonder if Bill’s in heaven now organising a show?” he mused. “He’s up there saying, ‘Hey! Elvis - you’re on next.’”