The Fillmore West

The Fillmore

The Fillmore West in the 1960s.

San Francisco’s The Fillmore Auditorium, an Italianate-style dance hall at the corner of Fillmore and Geary Streets, opened its doors in 1912. It was billed as The Majestic Hall and Majestic Academy of Dancing, and hosted social gatherings and masquerade balls. In the 1930s, it was renamed The Get Acquainted Society, and in the 1940s, it was converted into a roller rink. In 1952, the auditorium began hosting concerts by black artists, like B.B. King, James Brown, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Ike & Tina Turner.

When concert promoter Bill Graham came aboard in 1966, he began booking local rock, jazz and folk acts, a number of which would soon be famous. The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service all got their start at the Fillmore, and went on to define the “San Francisco Sound.” Rolling Stone magazine sprung up in 1967, looking to cover the scene.

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Fillmore was at the epicenter of the Beat and Hippie movements that took root in San Francisco. Writer Ken Kesey, and his bohemian friends, The Merry Pranksters, began holding Acid Tests at the Fillmore in 1965. The Acid Tests were communal events where young people could dance, socialize, and experiment with LSD. On January 8th, 1966, Kesey invited the Grateful Dead to be the house band during an Acid Test. The Pranksters recorded the show, spawning the first of countless live recordings of the Grateful Dead.

In his 2006 autobiography, Searching for the Sound, the Dead’s Phil Lesh wrote, “After Palo Alto, the [Acid] Test was ready for the big time — the Fillmore Auditorium. Much has been written about the role of the Fillmore in the then emerging countercultural groundswell, but at that moment it was simply the best possible venue for our trip: a huge (for us) audience space; a wide, low stage; and, best of all, balconies on three sides so that the light show and Prankster Central could spread out and be able to throw light on anything occurring in the hall.”

Graham booked the Fillmore until 1968, bringing in acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Cream, Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, and Muddy Waters. That year, Graham relocated to a nearby venue that had been operating as the Carousel Ballroom, and christened it The Fillmore West.

He also opened The Fillmore East in New York City, where John Lennon,  Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Elton John performed. The Allman Brothers Band recorded their celebrated double album At Fillmore East there in 1971.

Graham shuttered both the East Coast and West Coast venues in 1971, citing financial difficulties. The original Fillmore reverted to a private neighborhood club in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, it began hosting hardcore, punk and alternative bands. The venue officially reopened in 1994, welcoming a new crop of bands like  Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and The White Stripes. In 1997, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed a 20-night residency at the club.

“I thought the Fillmore would be the best place to do it, because the audience here is much more forgiving in as far as letting you experiment – and it proved true,” Petty told Mojo magazine in 1999.

Steve Miller is another artist who remembers the Fillmore fondly. “When you sit down and look at the lineups that played at the Fillmore East or the Fillmore West, that was probably the greatest melting pot of music in the history of civilization.”