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August 2005

H.E.A.R. Honors Chet Helms

Chet Helms (by Lee Houskeeper / San Francisco Stories)

San Francisco Impresario Chet Helms who was known at the "Father of the Summer of Love" and was the manager & founder of "Big Brother & the Holding Company" with Janis Joplin as well as the first to produce psychedelic light show concerts at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium then later at his own Avalon Ballrooms passed away at 12:35 AM, Saturday, June 25th at San Francisco's Pacific Medical Center from complications due to a stroke Helms suffered on Tuesday, June 21st. Helms was surrounded by his brother John Helms and six close friends at the time of his death.

No discussion involving the Sixties, the source of the "San Francisco sound" or the "Summer of Love" can take place without mentioning Chet Helms, a front-line contributor to the people, ideas and events surrounding the most dynamic decade in American history.

Chet Helms and his production company, the Family Dog, turned small get-togethers of local musicians and artists into a scene that eventually produced the great, legendary gatherings of the Summer of Love. Rock promoter Bill Graham first turned to Chet Helms and his well-connected family of artists and audiences in San Francisco to build his own promotional empire, well after the local "scene" had been established and nurtured in coffee houses all over the city.

Helms was born in Santa Maria, California, in 1942, and spent most of his youth in Texas and Missouri. While attending the University of Texas in Austin, he was drawn to the civil rights movement bubbling under in the South. A stepchild from a mixed-race marriage, Helms became actively engaged in organizing benefits for non-profit civil and human rights groups, all the while learning and using the tools of the trade he would later apply to the world of rock concert promotion.

Helms moved from Austin to San Francisco for the first time in the summer of 1962. He returned to Austin briefly in 1963 to beckon then-unknown folksinger Janis Joplin to hitch-hike back with him, telling her he would help promote her career in San Francisco.

In the basement of 1090 Page Street at the center of the colorful Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Helms organized informal jam sessions, out of which the band Big Brother and the Holding Company was formed. He later added Joplin as the group's lead singer and managed the band through its formative years.

Through his relationships with such celebrated figures as Ken Kesey and The Grateful Dead, Helms found himself at the center of it all, a willing coordinator of the era's new interpretation of music and youth culture. By February 1966, Helms started producing shows for many bands under the name Family Dog Productions at the Fillmore Auditorium, on alternating weekends with Bill Graham Presents. By April, Helms secured permits to run his own dance hall, The Avalon Ballroom on Sutter Street.

For three years, Helms and the Family Dog hosted some of the most influential events in San Francisco rock history, including free events in Golden Gate Park in 1966 and during what has now become known as the "Summer of Love" in 1967. From The Doors to Bo Diddley, Helms created a unique atmosphere at the Avalon which encouraged immersive experiences among the artists and audience. Psychedelic light shows have evolved into what we now know as "multi-media." And the trademark posters have skyrocketed in value over the years in the rock memorabilia market. It was a formula duplicated by rock promoters all over the country. Helms also opened up Family Dog dance halls in Denver and Portland before deciding in 1969 to run his operations out of one ballroom in San Francisco, on the Great Highway next to Playland-at-the-Beach.

By the end of 1970, the small local scene Helms helped create had grown into a cultural phenomenon exploited globally by a wide variety of entrepreneurs, for better or for worse. He decided to take a break, and would not return to concert promoting until 1978, when Family Dog produced the 1st Annual Tribal Stomp at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley.

After producing another Tribal Stomp in 1979 at the Monterey Fairgrounds - highlighted by the first-ever California appearance of The Clash - Helms retreated from active promotion. He came out of retirement briefly in October 1997 to produce the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park, where 60,000 fans gathered for a day of free music, with no arrests and no reports of incidents.

Since 1980, Helms has operated Atelier Dore, Inc., an art gallery in San Francisco specializing in American and European art from 1850 to 1950.

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