Family Dog Concert Posters

Family Dog Concert Posters

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company talked last week about how the concert poster artwork of the 1960s could end up eclipsing the music that they were made to advertise.

“They were extremely diverse,” Sam said. “There was no school, no trend. Anything you can say in general about the poster art then will be foolish, because immediately ten exceptions to what you just adumbrated will appear. Complete freedom. The entire canon of world art was ransacked to create these amazing works. They will be important long after the music has become quaint. Think of Toulouse-Lautrec. Have you listened to the music that he was listening to when he did his amazing work? It's great music, but what is more alive and vital today, the music or the art?”

The artwork he was talking about were the posters used to promote Big Brother and the Holding Company and other San Francisco bands’ shows. Transferred Texan Chet Helms originally had dance concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and shared the venue with a former New Yorker named Bill Graham. Graham had thrown a few benefit concerts to save his theater group, but when he saw the money he could make he forced Helms out. Helms settled a short time later at the Avalon Ballroom with his Family Dog crew.

Helms was also responsible for bringing Janis Joplin out to San Francisco and hooking her up with experimental acid rockers Big Brother and the Holding Company. You couldn’t advertise this kind of music just anywhere though and it needed a visual outlet that reflected the unique sound. There was one artist in the beginning who created all of the first concert posters for Bill Graham and Chet Helms, Wes Wilson.

Wilson, who happened to have a job at a print shop, ended up being in the right place at the right time when Helms and Graham came calling in 1966. Wilson began creating the artwork for music concerts at the Avalon and Fillmore and psychedelic art was born. He had two very different clients though. While Helms wanted more control over the posters than Graham did, he also had a theme to his Family Dog posters that is set more in classic imagery.

Helms’ Family Dog posters always have the logo of a Native American with a top-hat on, smoking a cigarette, and the quote underneath of, “MAY THE BABY JESUS SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR MIND.” They were the true hippies to those who were a part of the San Francisco scene at the time, and they were the opposite of Bill Graham’s business of The Fillmore. Helms never reached the financial success that Graham did in his life, but Helms represents what music and the business should have been.

Big Brother was the house band of the Avalon and also did many shows at the Fillmore Auditorium as well. The posters that Wes Wilson did early on for the Avalon were like old Wild West advertisements. Eventually Wilson became the main artist for Graham’s Fillmore West and other artists like Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse entered into the picture. Kelly is credited with creating “The Seed”, what collectors classify as the first real psychedelic concert poster. Done for the Red Dog Saloon, “The Seed” is an advertisement for a concert by The Charlatans, a band that looked better than they sounded in their Wild West outfits.

When Mouse and Kelly collaborated on Family Dog posters their style was to cut out old pictures and create very new and unique posters. Stanley Mouse was an artist known for working hot rod shows in the early sixties and selling decal and t-shirt designs. These are three of the artists that worked for the Family Dog and Helms during the early years. Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso also did posters for both venues and they complete the group known as the “Big Five” of poster artists from the era. In 1967 the big five were featured in an issue of Life Magazine and Wilsonwould go onto receive a large National Endowment for his contribution to American art.

Be very careful if you ever buy a Family Dog poster, they were numbered for the concert and the printing with originals made before the concert being the most valuable. Two extremely rare and highly collectable posters today are of a classic skeleton with roses image promoting The Grateful Dead (FD-26) and Big Brother and the Holding Company fitting into a Zig Zag ad (FD-14).

Go to my website at to learn more and see additional posters.