Chet Helms (1942 - 2005)
Chet Helms was always a showman. From an early age he had a knack for being able to organize big events. He was the kid behind the scenes at the school plays and local fundraisers who put all the pieces together and made sure the acts started on time. After high school he enrolled in the University of Texas and immersed himself in Austin's vibrant music scene.
Soon Chet would find himself being pulled westward. Inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Chet dropped out of school and hitchhiked to San Francisco. He arrived in 1962 and immediately made connections in the music community.
There was an amazing array of talent, but not enough places to showcase the bands. Chet saw an opportunity and quickly found a basement on Page Street where he could stage live events. The gigs were wildly successful and soon Chet was branching out into much bigger venues.
It was Chet who talked his old friend Janis Joplin into coming out west to sing in Big Brother and the Holding Company. As the popularity of the San Francisco bands grew, so did Chet's reputation as a rock promoter. In 1966 he teamed up with a commune of hippies called Family Dog and started putting together a series of legendary shows at the Fillmore Auditorium. Family Dog would host events every other weekend, and his rival Bill Graham would promote acts on the alternating weekends. The two promoters would lock horns many times over the years, and it was always a contrast in styles. Bill Graham had a reputation as an aggressive, no-nonsense business man, whereas Chet was seen as a more down-to-earth guy who was less interested in money and more focused on throwing a great party. His lack of business skills is one of the reasons Chet never made a huge fortune in the music business, but he was never short on ideas.
Chet’s visionary use of psychedelic posters to promote Family Dog events helped popularize the counterculture aesthetic that would symbolize the era. But Chet's greatest achievement was in putting on some of the greatest rock and roll events of all time. The list of performers is who's who of music legends like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, The Charlatans, The Doors, Grateful Dead, The Kinks, Love, Lovin' Spoonful, Moby Grape, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Carlos Santana Blues Band, Steppenwolf, Velvet Underground and many, many more.
In his later years, Chet began to focus more and more on the art world. He ran a small gallery on Bush Street for over 20 years. He retired in 2004 and passed away a year later from a stroke.
To celebrate Chet's life and the enormous impact he had on the culture of San Francisco, a massive memorial concert was held in Golden Gate Park, where tens of thousands of music lovers were treated to an all-star lineup featuring many of the Family Dog bands. Chet’s creative legacy lives on in their music and in the art he helped inspire.