Chet Helms: Hall of Fameward Bound?

“Leaders in the music industry joined together in 1983 to establish the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. One of the Foundation’s many functions is to recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll by inducting them into the Hall of Fame.” (From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame web site)

The nine nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Class of 2009, were announced today. They are: Jeff Beck (previously inducted as a member of The Yardbirds), Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and The Imperials, War, Bobby Womack, Run D.M.C., The Stooges, Metallica, and Chic. Five of the nominees will be inducted in Cleveland next April.

Chester Leo Helms Jr., whose credentials certainly meet the above-stated requirements, was, once again, unmentioned as a potential ‘non-performer’ inductee.

More than a few folks are asking, “Why?”

After all, nearly three dozen non-performing music biz contributors have been inducted into The Hall of Fame: record company execs, songwriters, disc jockeys, producers and at least one concert promoter, Bill Graham, who was enshrined in The Hall in 1992, less than a year after his untimely death in a helicopter crash in October 1991.

And rightfully so.

Although it matters not one bit, I fully realize that Bill Graham was not always, uh, warm and fuzzy, and that a lot of people had ugly run-ins with him over the years. But he treated me exceptionally well, or at least his organization did. I only met him once, in his office on Howard Street, in 1978. Rolling Stone had assigned me to write a feature story on Eddie Money, who was being managed by Graham at the time. Just before I was introduced to Graham by a member of his staff, I witnessed, up close and personal, a purple-faced. obscenity-laced, threat-filled, truly frightening Bill Graham tirade that ended with him slamming down the phone after having suggested to the person on the other end that he or she perform a rather difficult anatomical maneuver. He then turned to greet me, calmly and with a broad smile. Graham was, I decided at that moment, a magnificent actor.

Prior to that, I had done a pair of free-lance projects for Bill Graham Presents and Winterland Productions. The first project was writing and photographing an eight-page program for a Graham-produced, Dave Mason tour. (I took the photographs during a band rehearsal at Winterland one Sunday afternoon.)

A few days after I turned in my copy and photos for the Mason program, I received an envelope from Bill Graham Presents. Inside was a much-needed, very generous check, two primo tickets to an upcoming Elton John show at The Oakland Coliseum, and a letter of thanks that was signed by Bill.

Several months later, I got a call from one of Graham’s people at Winterland Productions, asking if I would be interested in writing the copy for a t-shirt catalog they were producing. (Graham had recently opened a retail rock t-shirt store called ‘333 Columbus,’ which, coincidentally was the address of the shop, and he was looking to expand into mail-order.) I said I was interested and trucked up to Winterland where I was escorted to a suite of funky offices in the basement. I was sitting at a dented, metal desk, looking over the goods I was going to write about, when someone mentioned that the crew filming “The Grateful Dead Movie” was in the hallway, shooting Dead posters for the film. I stepped out into the hallway, and watched the crew for a while, mentioning to one of Graham’s employees that I was a Deadhead. Not long after I returned to my temporary work station, the employee approached me, carrying a cardboard box. He put it on the floor, said, “Take what you want,” and left.

Inside the box were hundreds of tickets to old Fillmore shows, rubber-banded tickets that were reproductions of the posters and handbills for the shows. I spent the next 15 minutes or so extracting Grateful Dead tickets from the box and piling then on the desk. I ended up with 18 tickets before I was overwhelmed by guilt and shut down my mad scavenging.

I don’t think the t-shirt catalog was ever produced – at least, I never saw a copy – but I soon received another envelope, containing another check, and another letter, this one notifying me that I and a guest had been added to the Winterland guest list for future Dead shows and instructing me to pick up my tickets at Will Call. (I went to Will Call the next time The Dead played Winterland and, sure enough, I was handed a pair of General Admission tickets, but after that, I paid full freight for the shows. Again, the guilt. Damn nuns.)

All that having been said, Bill Graham is in the HOF and Chet Helms ain’t.

Bill Graham’s bio on the HOF web site mentions that he “booked such mainstays of the psychedelic era as The Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and The Holding Company…”

True enough.

But Chet Helms, essentially founded, named and managed Big Brother and then put them together with Janis. He also booked them at the Avalon, Denver Dog and Family Dog at The Beach for 51 shows. Big Brother played fewer than a dozen shows for Graham.

That alone, my friends, qualifies as a “significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.”

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Published in: on September 25, 2008 at 3:08 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Greg, You certainly make a very valid point. As regards the San Francisco Rock scene, Chet was every bit as pivotal as Bill Graham.

    Perhaps the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame is simply following the money.

  2. Perhaps. But I have another theory, thus far unprovable, about why The HOF Foundation has seemingly been reluctant to recognize Chet’s contributions.

  3. Would you care to share that theory? Or is that being held in reserve for the book?

  4. Now I’m dying to know what your theory is. I looked at the folks on the nominating committee, and, unless I’m missing something???

    By the way. I saw an hour of the 2006 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and saw a gentleman that bore a resemblance to you during the Bruce Hornsby-Ricky Skaggs portion. Could it have been?


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