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Fillmore East, legendary NYC music venue, marks 50th anniversary

The East Village theater changed the rules of rock concert presentation.

The Doors played Fillmore East in March 1968.

The Doors played Fillmore East in March 1968. Photo Credit: Yale Joel / Life Picture Collection / Getty Images

When Plainview-raised Steve Addabbo talks about the years he spent driving in from Stony Brook University to see shows at the legendary Fillmore East, he doesn’t describe an individual experience. Instead, he talks about a collective one. “We were all coming to experience the same thing,” Addabbo, 67, said. “At the Fillmore, the whole phenomenon of rock was bringing together my generation in a new way.”

The emotional connections that forged have awarded the Fillmore East the aura of a lost temple for the classic-rock faithful, the ideal resting place for the memories and ghosts of all the musicians who ruled the genre’s most sanctified era, from the late ’60s through the early ’70s. Thursday, March 8, will mark 50 years since promoter Bill Graham opened the theater on Second Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets in a then dreary East Village.

In a life span of a little more than three years, the venue hosted stars like Jimi Hendrix (who recorded his live “Band of Gypsys” album there on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 1970), The Who (who played “Tommy” from start to finish in a run of six specially staged shows at the hall) and The Allman Brothers Band (who went from unknowns to the Fillmore’s virtual house band in less than one year). The theater, with a capacity of 2,700, changed the rules of rock concert presentation while giving fans a close-up view of bands that, in short order, would become too big to see anywhere but sprawling arenas, if not stadiums.

“For the rock audience, the Fillmore East provided the most amazing concert experience of all time,” said John Glatt, author of “Live at the Fillmore East and West,” as well as a 1993 biography of Bill Graham. “No other venue has its mystique.”

The Fillmore, whose kickoff show featured Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, arrived in New York with a considerable pedigree. Already, it had brand recognition from the two-year run of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco during that city’s flowers-in-your-hair peak, serenaded by artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother. At first, Graham was reluctant to open an East Coast corollary.

“He felt he’d been a failure in New York because he had tried to become an actor here without success,” Glatt said. “The first time Bill had any success was on the West Coast. But after he saw Janis play at another venue [the Anderson Theater] in the East Village and he saw the New York audience’s enthusiasm, he decided to do it.”

The vibe, and setup, of the East Coast Fillmore differed significantly from the one out West. “The New York scene was much more sophisticated and more musically interesting,” said Bonnie MacLean, 78, who was married to Graham from 1967 to 1975 and who worked with him. “The San Francisco scene was very local, hippie-oriented. New York was more serious.”

The East venue also had assigned seats and ushers, while San Francisco’s version (which, by July of ’68, had moved locations and changed its name to the Fillmore West) “was loose,” MacLean said. “Everybody there was just walking around or dancing.”

The Medieval Revival-style building that became the Fillmore East had opened in 1925 as a Yiddish theater. Graham, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, wanted to extend the venue’s theatrical history by offering specially designed programs for each show, items which have become collector’s items. Sound quality, too, was key, in contrast to most venues of that day. “When we saw the Jeff Beck Group, you could hear every note,” said James Spina, 68, editor of 20/20 magazine, who drove to the theater regularly from his Floral Park home. “My ears paid the price.”

Crucial, as well, was the psychedelic Joshua Light Show. “To watch that lighting behind bands like the Dead was incredibly trippy,” said Addabbo, who later became a Grammy-winning producer for artists like Bob Dylan and Shawn Colvin.

Drama arrived with the very first Fillmore show. The drummer for the opening act, Albert King, had been AWOL from the army; military police came to arrest him right after the show. More often the excitement happened onstage, usually at the second of two shows held each night. “The late show was the one to see,” said Fillmore regular Mitchell Cohen, 67, then a Bronx teenager, who later became a music executive at Arista and Columbia Records. “There was more opportunity there for long jams.”

One of them, in February 1970, featured members of the Dead, the Allmans and Fleetwood Mac. It lasted nearly until dawn. Graham tried to make the bills as eclectic as possible, pairing Led Zeppelin with Woody Herman’s Big Band, Steppenwolf with Buddy Rich, and Neil Young with Miles Davis. “Bill wanted to educate the audience,” MacLean said. “He felt rock was too limited.”

Unfortunately, in the wake of Woodstock, the audience for rock expanded so fast, it became impossible for an intimate venue like the Fillmore to keep booking top bands. As a result, a bitter Graham shuttered the theater on June 27, 1971. (The final night featured the Allmans, J. Geils Band, Edgar Winter’s White Trash and The Beach Boys.) “He railed against the music industry and the bands as too greedy,” Glatt said. “He’d had enough.”

Several years later, Graham, who died in 1991, got back into rock promotion and the Fillmore space hosted fitful rock shows in ’72 and ’74 before becoming The Saint, a gay dance club, from 1980 to ’88. In 2013, the venue’s former lobby became an Apple Bank branch, with luxury housing above, obscuring a history that was seminal to those who witnessed it.

“The first words out of my 16-year-old son’s mouth when he meets people is, ‘My dad saw Led Zeppelin at the Fillmore as an opening act,’ ” Spina said. “It’s incredible the bands we got to see, for so little money [ticket prices originally were $3, $4 and $5] and in such an intimate space.”

FILLMORE EAST, ON THE RECORD

Thankfully, many great Fillmore East shows have been preserved on albums. These stand out:

1. The Allman Brothers Band, “The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings,” a six-CD set of early and late shows on March 12, 13, 1971, and the complete closing set of June 27, 1971

2. Joe Cocker, “Mad Dogs & Englishmen, The Complete Fillmore East Concerts,” March 27-28, 1970

3. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “4 Way Street,” June 2-7, 1970

4. Miles Davis, “Live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970,” featuring Davis’ “lost quintet” (Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Davis)

5. Jimi Hendrix, “Band of Gypsys,” Jan. 1, 1970

6. Quicksilver Messenger Service, “Happy Trails,” from Fillmores East and West combined in 1969

7. Ten Years After, “Live at the Fillmore East 1970,” Feb. 27, 28, 1970

8. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Live at the Fillmore East,” March 6-7, 1970

9. King Crimson, “Epitaph,” Nov. 21, 1969

10. Laura Nyro, “Spread Your Wings and Fly,” May 30, 1971

— JIM FARBER

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