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When Fillmore East Introduced White Kids to Black Artists

Frank Mastropolo

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Jimi Hendrix at Fillmore East, May 10, 1968Photo ©Frank Mastropolo

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of Fillmore East, promoter Bill Graham’s rock mecca in New York’s East Village. By the time it closed in June 1971, Graham presented the cream of rock royalty; Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, The Who, Eric Clapton, Elton John and many other stars performed.

And it was not just rock. Graham revolutionized the rock concert industry with shows that featured the giants of jazz, blues, soul, R&B, and folk music. Graham introduced young white audiences to Black artists that included Tina Turner, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Voices of East Harlem, and blues legends Albert King, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Taj Mahal.

For a new book, Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, I interviewed more than 90 of Fillmore East’s musicians and crew members, including 19 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Many fondly remembered Graham's groundbreaking contribution.

“The kids were leading it,” Taj Mahal explains. “They were like, ‘Wow, who’s this B.B. King guy? Eric Clapton says he’s somebody. I guess we should go and hear him.’ They’d go and hear him and go, ‘Wow, yeah, I can see what you can learn from that.’”

“You’d come to see Tim Buckley and you’d go, ‘Who’s Albert King? That’s Albert King!’” says Rock Hall inductee Steve Miller. “‘I never heard anything like that in my life! I wanna hear that again!’ It exposed people, that was the really great thing about it. And it exposed a different audience. It was a middle-class, white audience. Kids from the suburbs coming in to see this stuff, you know?

“You talk to people and when they were little kids, they say, that was a big deal to go to the Fillmore and see a show. You might just be a punk fourteen-year-old kid wanting to go into town to get away from your parents and go do that groovy thing and that might have been the night Clifton Chenier was there. And all of a sudden you know about Louisiana swamp rock.

“You’d go, ‘Who knew?’ And that happened all the time. And I think the most important thing about the whole deal was the exposure it gave to so many different kinds of artists and the careers that it created. And a lot of those careers are still around, a lot of those musicians are still playing.”

Claudia Lennear is a renowned vocalist who performed at Fillmore East with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen and as an Ikette with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. “When I was with Ike and Tina, we played the Chitlin’ Circuit. The Chitlin’ Circuit was a group of black-owned nightclubs, based mostly in the South,” Lennear recalls. “That was the bread and butter of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. And the way we dressed and behaved on stage was sort of formal.

“The Ikettes wore their same dresses and the band wore suits and Tina wore her special dresses. And her diamond rings and all this. That was what we were used to. But when we got to the Fillmore and we were dressed like that, everybody else was in blue jeans. And tie-dyed shirts. Big hair and Afros and all that. We were wearing that straight hair with miniskirts and all.

“So we really just kind of seemed out of place. I didn’t see one hippie with a diamond ring on. But most of the Ikettes had their bling, as they would call it nowadays.

“I always thought that was so strange and I would always mention to Ike and Tina, you know, maybe we need to relax if we’re going to cross over. Relax in the way we dressed and the jewelry we wear and that kind of thing. But they didn’t want to hear that. I could very well have just turned around and talked to the wall and got a better response.”

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Taj Mahal and Howard Johnson at Fillmore EastPhoto by Ben Haller

Taj Mahal played a three-night engagement in 1971 at Fillmore East with a tuba band organized by multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson. “The whole country was like one great big laboratory,” said Taj Mahal. “There was a lot going on when Graham was doing the music here in this country. It was pretty damn serious if you ask me. Who does it now? Nobody. No-body. It’s a shame too because there’s still plenty of great music and musicians out here.”

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past

New York, NY
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