Chet Helms

Chet Helms (1942 – 2005), often called the father of San Francisco’s 1967 ‘Summer of Love,’ was a music promoter and a cultural figure in San Francisco during its hippie period in the late Sixties. Helms was the founder and manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company and recruited Janis Joplin as its lead singer.

He was a producer and organizer, helping to stage free concerts and other cultural events at Golden Gate Park, the backdrop of San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967, as well as at other venues, including the Avalon Ballroom. He was the first producer of psychedelic light-show concerts at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom and was instrumental in helping to develop bands that had the distinctive San Francisco Sound.

In his youth, Helms enrolled at the University of Texas and became part of the music scene there (which  included a very young and inexperienced Janis Joplin). Soon he dropped out of school and, inspired by the Beat Generation writers, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to travel across America in search of freedom and inspiration, he set off wearing shoulder-length hair, beard and rimless glasses, hitchhiking across the country. He ended up in San Francisco in 1962. Later he was to return to Austin with his best friend at the time, Peter Haigh, to visit his Joplin. He thought she could make it as a singer in San Francisco. After a week of partying, they convinced Janis to drop out of school and hitchhike back to San Francisco with them. Later he would bring her to the attention of Big Brother and the Holding Company.

After arriving in San Francisco in 1962, he scrounged a living various ways, including selling marijuana, an occupation that caused him to go to a boardinghouse. The house was in Haight-Ashbury, then a rundown, low-rent neighborhood. Having met many musicians in his trade, and appreciating the vibrant music scene in San Francisco, he instinctively recognized the need for a forum for musicians to jam. When he saw the large basement at the boarding house, he began organizing jam sessions for the local musicians. Helms, a gifted organizer, made those sessions popular and started charging an admission fee of 50 cents. Big Brother and the Holding Company formed and Helms functioned as their low-key manager. He teamed up Janis Joplin with Big Brother for jam sessions in the Haight-Ashbury basement.

In 1966 he formed a loose connection with the Family Dog, a commune of hippies who threw open dances and wild events. Helms was the ideal person to help this group organize their presentations and he moved into the Family Dog house. Their first formal production was a concert at Longshoremen’s Hall. Helms formally founded Family Dog Productions to begin promoting concerts at The Fillmore Auditorium, alternating weekends with another young promoter, Bill Graham. As the concerts became more popular, inevitable ‘conflicts’ arose between the two promoters, based in part on the notion that public conflict and controversy could generate free publicity. Within a few months Helms secured the permits necessary to host events at the Avalon Ballroom, an old dancehall. Big Brother and the Holding Company debuted there in June 1966. Later Helms would get them the appearance that made them famous, the Monterey Pop Festival where Albert Grossman spotted Joplin and offered her a contract.

The Avalon Ballroom became the Family Dog’s main venue. They held a series of legendary concerts there between April 1966 and November 1968. Their shows were a mix of artists, from rock to blues, soul, Indian, to rock and roll. To promote their concerts, Family Dog published a series of innovative psychedelic posters, handbills and other ephemera, created by a group of prominent young San Francisco artists including Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse (Mouse Studios), Rick Griffin, Steve Renick and Victor Moscoso. Often printed using intensely colored fluorescent inks, they typically featured a mixture of found images and specially drawn artwork. The posters of Griffin, Mouse and Kelly, in particular, were known for the intricate and highly stylized hand-lettering in which the concert details were written out, which sometimes took considerable time and effort to decipher. Original Avalon posters are now collector’s items.

While Graham was an aggressive businessman and professional promoter, Helms presented a folksier image. He related easily to the San Francisco hippie subculture since, in essence, he was one of them. ‘The San Francisco Chronicle’ called him, ‘a towering figure in the 1960s Bay Area music scene,’ and indeed he was a huge contributor. Helms embraced music for music’s sake and the Beat-hipster-generation-turned-hippy philosophy. While the war raged in Vietnam and the nation coped with racial problems and assassinations, the anti-war, anti-establishment youth thrived in the throes of a social revolution.

Meanwhile, Helms was cranking out bands and musicians espousing the same lifestyle as this new audience, while giving the very distinct impression that he was uninterested in financial gain. His benign image could be deceptive. According to Jay Ferguson of Spirit, Graham would negotiate shrewdly and would frequently offer a lower fee to a band than Helms would, but when the concert was over, he would pay the band in full; Helms did not always do likewise. Some of the more serious bands (ones not subsidized by trust funds) came to prefer Graham’s hard-nosed, businesslike approach. Graham did covertly help Helms financially at various times during the 1970s, keeping San Francisco in the fore as the West Coast Music mecca.

The core San Francisco rock bands, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service (including pre-Dino Valenti), would play for both Graham’s concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium, once a Black Muslim temple, and the Family Dog at Helms’ Avalon dances. Helms’ shows were always more relaxed and offered a pleasant alternative to ‘Bill Graham Presents’ dances, at a more reasonable admission, and with more room for the stoned, arm-waving type of solo dancing that personified the era. The nearby Mt. Zion Hospital kept a late-night clinic to accommodate the many drug overdoses from the Fillmore.

To concertgoers, Helms’ contributions to the music world, like introducing Janis Joplin to the San Francisco music scene, were not always well publicized, but witnessing the final product of Joplin, with her powerful performances was a spectacle. First introduced as a new bandmember of Big Brother, she brought what the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, and Big Brother did not seem at that point to have – a lead singer to match Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin and Grace Slick. Joplin later left Big Brother to record solo albums and to rapidly grow in fame, accelerated by her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Creativity was the essence, borrowed from (while re-popularizing) a vast spectrum of musical idioms, including R&B, East Indian, pop, country, bluegrass, and, to an extent, jazz. Music that featured long solos suited the audiences, and was soon used by bands everywhere, in performance and recordings, later becoming a major vehicle for helping launch what would become a new FM radio station music format – the less-commercial ‘Album-Oriented Rock,’ in the form of ‘underground’ stations that sprang up coast-to-coast. Exposure on these airwaves further helped the popularity of concert-oriented rock and bands that would play for hours without stopping, as the two-minute hit temporarily was no longer the objective. Songs with long, art-centric solos gained reaffirmation with the increasing commercial success of the radio stations that became part of the new ‘movement’ genre.

Sometimes Helms cast the music promoter role aside and the Family Dog would feature speakers Alan Watts, Dr. Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, poet Allen Ginsberg), and other counter-culter gurus. Helms is linked in San Francisco lore with Graham, the Diggers (theater), Emmett Grogan, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Neal Cassady, Kenneth Rexroth, Ralph J. Gleason, and others.

‘Bill Graham Presents’ shows evolved more into high-power, professional lineups of better-known headline bands that made him known as the can-do guy that he was, while Helms, although managing to produce top-flight bands, still showcased bands that tended to be hipper and local. Helms didn’t seem to have the need to hire zealous uniformed security guards, so teenagers found it easier to sneak into his dances. Helms ultimately allowed free admission after midnight. The San Francisco Family Dog dances later re-emerged in a new location, the former Ocean Beach Pavilion turned Slot car track that was right next door to the old skating rink in San Francisco’s Richmond district.

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