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Remembering When The Fillmore West Closed Down 5 Decades Ago

NOEL KING, HOST:

This coming weekend, it'll be 50 years since an iconic rock 'n' roll venue went silent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL GRAHAM: I can guarantee you it's not a nice thing to say on the air, but this is going to be the greatest [expletive] evening of our lives.

(APPLAUSE)

KING: That's concert promoter Bill Graham at the farewell show for the Fillmore West in San Francisco. If he said you could play there, it could make your career.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR is celebrating 50 years on the air. So every once in a while, we're looking back to some of the other things that happened in 1971. So let's set the scene here. It's the 1960s. San Francisco is full of new talent - Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Grateful Dead. And at the center of that scene was the Fillmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. STEPHEN (LIVE AT THE FILLMORE WEST SAN FRAN 1969 REMASTERED VERSION)")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) St. Stephen with a rose, in and out of the garden he goes.

KING: The club became a national obsession, and not just for rock bands. The Fillmore was one of the go-to venues for any artist trying to win over rock 'n' roll fans. Miles Davis played there. Aretha Franklin tore the roof off the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT (LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST)")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) What you want, baby, I got it. What you need, you know I got it. All I'm asking...

MARTIN: But as the hippies turned from counterculture to big business, the tiny Fillmore West couldn't keep up with the arenas that started booking their bands. It closed its doors on July 4, 1971. Its sister venue, the Fillmore East in New York, closed a week before that.

KING: Bill Graham talked to NPR back then, just after the club shut down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GRAHAM: The business aspect of rock 'n' roll isn't as pleasant as it used to be. It has gotten more and more of a business. It's always been...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

GRAHAM: ...A business. But the ruthlessness, the under-the-table shenanigans of the industry have gotten to be brutal.

KING: Bill Graham stayed promoting concerts, including massive shows like 1982's US Festival and the American part of 1985's Live Aid. And then in 1991, he died in a helicopter crash.

MARTIN: The old site of the Fillmore West eventually became a Honda dealership. It's now back to being a performance space with a new name, SVN West, and a legacy to live up to.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND SONG, "WHIPPING POST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.