Bill Graham Opens Olympic

By Rick Sakai

New University, March 11, 1970

“I think we’re going to be here for a while,” Bill Graham beamed, introducing a rock “spectacular” presented at the Olympic Auditorium last Saturday night.[1] The dance concert, which featured Bigfoot, Mountain, Johnny Winter, and Frank Zappa, was the first of a series of bi-weekly shows which Graham plans to stage at the Olympic during the next few months.

Graham, the rock concert impresario who has become well known for his productions at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York, was forced to close down operations at the Fillmore West earlier this year and has apparently decided to start fresh in Los Angeles after an unsuccessful attempt to establish himself at the Winterland hall in Oakland.

The concert began promptly at 8:30 Saturday evening with Bigfoot, a popular “honky soul” group from Orange County. Though their set amounted to little more than a tolerable imitation of the Electric Flag on a less grandiose scale, the group was well received by an audience that seemed up for anything Graham could offer.

After a brief intermission for equipment set-up Graham introduced Mountain, an eastern group featuring lead guitarist Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi on bass, The infamous “Pappalardi touch” so conspicuous in the later Cream albums and most of his other productions was unmistakable in Mountain, especially in “Theme for an Imaginary Western” from Jack Bruce’s album, “Songs for a Tailor”, which Pappalardi also produced.

Leslie West’s lead playing was slightly reminiscent of Jimmy Page in the first Led Zeppelin album, though a bit tidier and with a really effective use of feedback. The entire set, in fact, was an impressive display of musical economy, with Pappalardi completely in charge, making sure everything was cued in at the proper time and cut short at the point of excess.

West’s singing was no less skillful, especially in his performance of Lee Michael’s “Stormy Monday” which was, but for the peculiar charismatic quality of Michael’s voice, as good as the original. The set ended, as unobtrusively as it had begun, with a surprisingly well-arranged and performed drum solo – an unfortunate rarity in rock music.

The second intermission was considerably longer, much to the dismay of Bill Graham who was on stage after every act, barking orders at equipment managers and hurrying things along whenever possible. Graham, needless to say, is no amateur in the concert game and his determination to sell his shows in L.A. was evident in the meticulous production of the performance at the Olympic. Sound and lighting were better than ever at the aging home of the Roller Derby which has been used occasionally for rock concerts in the past.

After the lengthy intermission, which may have been appropriately climactic for the phenomenon that was to follow, Johnny Winter came fluttering out on stage like any good Columbia superstar would, bringing the entire auditorium to its feet. Looking like something you’d expect to see dancing on top of an eyeball in a Bosch painting, Winter slinked around the stage in a jet black outfit and a colored scarf which hung from his neck down to his knees – an eerie contrast to the white skin and shoulder-length white hair of the albino bluesman from Texas.

Although two-and-a-half albums have not managed to make Winter the Clapton or Alvin Lee that Columbia Records paid a lot of bread to produce, he is nonetheless a dynamic performer with an exceptional stage presence which earned him an encore and several standing ovations at the Olympic.

He performed several blues and rock standards, his rusty voice wailing on “Mean Town Blues” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and those relentless, flashy Chuck Berry riffs accenting frequent displays of instrumental acrobatics. Winter is fast probably as fast as the celebrated Alvin Lee with considerably more class, and his tight “bottleneck” playing ranks among the better white interpretations. In short, Winter proved to be everything Columbia tried to sell him as, though his musical proficiency was much less evident in his records than in his performance at the Olympic.

Johnny Winter and his band ended their set at 12:20 and before anyone really had a chance to catch their breath, Graham introduced Frank Zappa. Zappa, the self-exiled genius, who showed the rock scene where it was going several years before it went, came to Bill Graham’s show to put down some serious music. He has long since passed the Mothers of Invention, Rubin and the Jets, and all the games he used to play with people’s heads.

Although it may have only been his enthusiasm for the show, Zappa also seemed to have lost a good deal of that caustic irony in his past performances reflected by his now-famous observation that “kids wouldn’t know good music if it came up and bit ‘em on the ass.” Though with tongue firmly in cheek, he even walked to the edge of the stage to greet fans before his set began.

And Zappa was as up for the Olympic show as anyone. He appeared with the bass player, organ-saxophonist Ian Underwood, and violinist “Sugar Cane” Harris (Don of “Don and Eddie” from the El Monte Legion Stadium) who were his sidemen on his “Hot Rats” album. All three are exceptionally talented musicians who fit in well with Zappa’s music. Harris is a phenomenon in himself, thrashing at his instrument with unbelievable, intensity and control, and although Underwood’s sax work was somewhat less inspired than it was on “Hot Rats”, he still came off much better than most of the self-styled Coltranes that have been cropping up among rock groups lately. Also performing with the group was Aynsley Dunbar, formerly a drummer with John Mayall.

Zappa tied the entire performance together with his own guitar work which was a joy to hear of its own accord. He is one of the few rock guitarists around that knows how to use electronic gimmicks like wah-wah pedals as musical instruments rather than toys and his unique playing style blended superbly with the violin and tenor sax which were also augmented by electronic effects.

Zappa, even more than Pappalardi, was in full control throughout the performance. Cuing solos in, fading them out, gesturing for crescendos with all the grandeur of a symphony conductor, he provided a tightness for the group which was equalled only by its technical proficiency.

During the last song of his set, “Willie the Pimp” from “Hot Rats”, he decorated a microphone stand with audience contributions which included a couple of shirts, a pair of pants, a bra, and several joints. After fading the group out Zappa stepped to another mike with a timing that was almost too good to have been spontaneous and proclaimed triumphantly, while pointing to the stand. “In this performance of “Willie the Pimp” you, the people of Los Angeles, have created an Orange County.”

But even if Graham had not assembled this particular collection of outstanding musicians, even if Winter and Zappa had been replaced by less talented performers, the show itself would have remained the success it was. Graham created the perfect concert, from its beginning five minutes ahead of schedule to its inspiring end five-and-a-half hours later. Winter played for ninety minutes, Zappa almost that long, and most impressive of all, they played to a predominately cool, unhassled audience that paid only four bucks for the privilege of hearing. As Zappa himself observed with a noticeable touch of nostalgia in his voice, “It’s good to see some action like this happening in Los Angeles. It’s been along time.”

1. March 7, 1970. The Zappa's band was FZ, Max Bennett, Aynsley Dunbar, Sugarcane Harris, Ian Underwood. According to FZShows the setlist was Sharleena, Twinkle Tits, Interlude (aka Another Whole Melodic Section), Directly From My Heart To You, Chunga's Revenge, Willie The Pimp