Vault Radio, Offering Fresh Blasts from the Past

Give It a Listen

Bill Sagan is president of Wolfgang's Vault, home to the archives of San Francisco rock impresario Bill Graham. Now comes Web-based Vault Radio, which streams recordings from concerts Graham promoted. Featured artists include The Who, Cream, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and The Sex Pistols.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Look, we know our audience. We know our audience contains many people who belong to that generation that was born in the years following World War II but before the arrival of the Beatles on these shores. That is, Baby Boomers, the generation that never stops talking about where they were when they first heard the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Chicago, The Who, James Taylor singing Fire and Rain. Blah, blah. Wow, man. But for many Baby Boomers, not every single moment of their experience at music events may be crystal clear, if you catch my drift.

This week, a new radio show of sorts debuted on the Internet. It's called Vault Radio. Its play list is made up of recordings from the archives of legendary San Francisco music promote Bill Graham. In the raw, unadulterated, whether you remember it or not.

Like this, from the Cream concert at the Fillmore in 1967.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Vault Radio is the newest component of the website Wolfgang's Vault, which features vintage concert posters, tickets, t-shirts and other memorabilia from those archives. Bill Sagan, a Minneapolis businessman purchased the collection a number of years ago. He didn't know at the time that he was sitting on a cache of more than 5,000 live audio and videotapes recorded between 1966 and 1999.

Bill Sagan joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BILL SAGAN (President, Wolfgang's Vault): It's good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: By the way, Wolfgang, was that Bill Graham's other name or something?

Mr. SAGAN: Yeah. When Bill Graham left Germany as a young boy and much of his family, his mother and father for sure, got caught up at the concentration camps and never got out, he and some of his aunts and uncles did get out, but he came to New York as Wolfgang Grichonka(ph) and took the name Bill Graham from the phone book when he got to New York.

SIMON: I never knew that story. Who are some of the names that you have in there?

Mr. SAGAN: Oh, in the audio-video library, it's everyone, and it's everyone from Led Zeppelin and Country Joe and the Fish through Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the Doors and Jeff Beck through early, early concerts of Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, all the way up to 1991 and Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam and all the way up to modern, or more modern, days, you know, with Dave Matthews Band and some of the great performers of today.

SIMON: What a wealth of things to choose from. How do you decide what to use?

Mr. SAGAN: It's very difficult to choose. What we have decided to do is to put music on Vault Radio that is great performers, great songs and great performances. There are probably between thirty and forty thousand unique songs that pass that test based upon what we've seen so far. If you listen to the playlist, however, it's a total of about 72 songs. It goes for about five, five and a half hours. It is very different from song to song. You might be listening to Aretha Franklin do Respect, and the next song would be Jeff Beck. The one after that might be an instrumental, a jazz instrumental from Miles Davis, followed by Led Zeppelin or Van Morrison.

SIMON: What are some of your favorites?

Mr. SAGAN: I get a real charge out of early, early Bruce Springsteen. In 1973, he played out here as the opening act for Blood, Sweat and Tears at the Berkeley Community Theater. He only played six songs with his band. He played Blinded by the Light, which he actually wrote but that was really made popular by a different band. That is a phenomenal concert.

(Soundbite of Bruce Springsteen singing Blinded By the Light)

Mr. SAGAN: Aretha Franklin in 1968 at the Fillmore, watching her perform, not only singing but also playing the piano, with King Curtis, and you're sitting there listening to this and watching this on video, and then for the encore a gentleman by the name of Ray Charles comes out from the back and joins her for a four song encore.

You know, we think there's a big difference between studio music and live performance music. You know, studio music is studio music. It's polished. It's sweetened. It's changed. It's not what the band played. When you listen to music on Vault Radio, it is what the band played. You hear odd things because the performers talk. One forgets that when Led Zeppelin came to the United States for the first time, they opened for Country Joe and the Fish. This was before their first album. They weren't that big a band, and when you listen to songs from this first concert, the band actually had to introduce themselves person by person because no one really knew who they were.

Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Lead Singer, Led Zepplin): I'd like to introduce the group to you. Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones, bass guitar.

John Bonham, drums. John Bonham.

Jimmy Page, lead guitar.

And myself, Robert Plant. (Soundbite of music)

Mr. SAGAN: It goes on like that. We have, for example, The Who's concert at the Cow Palace out in San Francisco, both audio and video, and that's the one where Keith Moon fell off the drums in back for whatever reason, was unconscious, was pulled off the stage, and Peter Townsend asks the audience if someone can play the drums, and this kid who was going to Monterey High School at the time came up and played the drums for the remainder of the performance.

SIMON: Whatever happened to that kid? Do you have any idea?

Mr. SAGAN: You know, it's one of the great stories in rock and roll that he just went back, he joined a band in high school, played a little bit of music and then went into business.

SIMON: You have Fire and Rain, James Taylor, Berkeley Community Theater, oh my word, May 29, 1970. Now, James Taylor, we've interviewed him. He gets asked to sing that song once every hour, you know, for the past 30 years, but this must have been one of the first times he sang it.

Mr. SAGAN: It was one of the very first times. He's playing acoustic guitar, and when you hear this song, in fact his entire concert, it is so crisp and so clear and there's not a pin drop, could drop in the audience. It is the clearest live performance of James Taylor I've ever heard. And plus, this was an interesting concert because Carole King was there also and joined him for a couple of performances during the night.

(Soundbite of James Taylor singing Fire and Rain)

SIMON: As I understand it, anyone can listen to this streamed over the internet, but it can't be downloaded, right?

Mr. SAGAN: That's right. I mean when we built the radio station, we built the radio station as best as we could. I mean it's a stream that is transferred at a 128K. Most internet radio is at about half that. We don't advertise on it. It's music. You get it free. You can listen to it. You can listen to it for as long as you want, but it's not downloadable. We expect to be able to be downloading music sometime in the middle part of this year, in like the July, August timeframe. We will be allowing and selling downloads to the public that wants to buy these live performances.

SIMON: Are there rights restrictions that you have to worry about? Because a lot of these artists, obviously, are bigger than ever now.

Mr. SAGAN: In some cases, Graham got rights way back then in some of those initial contracts. And by the way, we have all those initial contracts, Janis Joplin's signature right next to Bill Graham, Jimi Hendrix 's. In many cases, though, we must negotiate with record companies because really what we do, or what we own, is we own the master recordings, but you must negotiate with the band or the record company to get the rights to distribute it.

SIMON: Let me just ask about a couple here, just looking down this list. Everly Brothers doing All You Gotta Do is Dream.

(Soundbite of Everly Brothers song)

SIMON: Now, this is 1969 when they weren't exactly burning up the charts, were they?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SAGAN: Bill Graham would have the darnedest line-ups. Graham had this thing about taking performers that he really liked and packaging them with performers that were doing extraordinarily well at the time. So he might have the Everly Brothers playing with The Birds. He would bring Muddy Waters back, and he would have Muddy Waters on the same bill as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, but he had these real mixes of performers.

SIMON: This is kind of a nice hobby you have going here, Mr. Sagan.

Mr. SAGAN: You know, I'd hate to call it a hobby, Scott. It's a business, but it's fun, and as my kids like to tell me, it's made me a hell of a lot cooler since I bought it than I was before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Bill Sagan is the president of Wolfgang's Vault, which this week debuted Vault Radio, speaking with us from KQED in San Francisco. And for a link to Wolfgang's Vault and Vault Radio, you can visit our website, npr.org. Thanks, Mr. Sagan.

Mr. SAGAN: Thank you, Scott.

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