Randy Tuten Interview Part 1

Randy Tuten: Led Zeppelin and Bill Graham’s Concert Poster Artist

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies to Randy Tuten’s concert posters, but sometimes, especially today, the picture is also worth thousands of dollars.

In the mid-1960s making concert posters in San Francisco was similar to Paris a century before when Toulouse Lautrec did posters for The Moulin Rouge. It was a spiritual marriage of music, artists, rebellion, and revolution that made advertising images more important than just rock show ads.

“I’m 64 years old,” Randy Tuten said. “So I guess I started when I was 25 or something like that. But the other artists were young when they started too… Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin; none of us ever thought we would be doing this more than a year or two. So it wasn’t a big thing, it was like little episodes because it didn’t pay much.”

Randy Tuten has become one of the top concert poster artists in the business. He also has created them longer than most of his contemporaries, despite starting a bit late.

“I was born in San Francisco, but I went to high school in Los Angeles, inHollywood,” Tuten said. “I used to travel up to San Francisco in 1966 and 67’ just to hang out with some friends and go see some music. I started seeing the ‘Big 5’ (of poster artists at the time) Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Wes Wilson’s posters around town. I said to myself that these are great, but I didn’t have a desire to do them at that time as long as they were good. Then, as soon as some other people started doing ones that were sub-quality, I went, ‘Well, if they can do these then I can certainly do posters.’ So that is how I started. I started that part of my life in 1967, and then I went to see Chet Helms at the Avalon Ballroom. I chose them because Mouse, Rick, Kelley, and everybody I knew were doing posters more there than for Bill Graham at the Fillmore. Wes Wilson was doing posters for Bill, however, and (eventually) I got sick of being rejected for a year from the art department at Chet’s Family Dog.”

After initially wanting to work for Helm’s Family Dog and being rejected for a year Tuten decided to bring his portfolio to Graham. In the beginning only Wes Wilson made the Fillmore’s concert posters, but that changed after a fallout over contracts and money. The moment that Graham saw Tuten’s work he commissioned 4 concert posters. He liked that Tuten’s art was not as much psychedelic, but that it was more like fancy advertisement posters.

“The Family Dog were knocking them off, but they were a bunch of hippies,” Tuten said. “I was really never a hippie, but I liked the hippies; I had nothing against them. I liked them because they didn’t want to fight all the time. When you were growing up in high school in the early 60s, like 1959 to 1964, you had to defend yourself a lot in school.”

Was it like “Rebel Without a Cause?”

“Kind of, yeah,” Tuten said. “And so I liked the hippies because they didn’t want to fight. And that was fine with me.”

The first concert poster that Tuten did for Graham’s Fillmore was of a ship bursting through a red door. It featured The Grateful Dead, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Spirit for a show on January 2-4 of 1969. His next poster was for Led Zeppelin, which began a career of many Zep posters to follow.

“The first concert poster I did for Led Zeppelin had a car on it,” Tuten said. “It also featured County Joe & The Fish. The next poster was an update of an avocado art piece I did in college, so I didn’t start to do the blimps until after it was all said and done. Funny thing is that Rick Griffin always got Jimi Hendrix posters and I always got Led Zeppelin posters. It wasn’t planned that way, it just worked out. I don’t know about Victor Moscoso and The Doors, but it was just a random selection of who did the posters for what band. We had no fiendish plot behind it all.”

Fillmore posters begin with a notation of “BG”, standing for Bill Graham, and then the number following stands for the show in the series. The numerical system begins with Graham’s first concert in 1966 at the Fillmore as BG1 and ends with BG289 when the Fillmore closed in 1972. There are also more modern BGP posters, but those are less valuable and more numerous.

It wasn’t until later that Tuten decided to use a blimp in his posters. BG199 (11/6-9/1969), featuring a blimp to advertise an upcoming Led Zeppelin show, is one of the more famous Fillmore posters. It’s also one of the top posters sought after by collectors.

“Led Zeppelin always used a blimp,” Tuten said. “I was tired of using a blimp all the time, so I put the blimp in the hanger on BG199 rather than just having a blimp in the sky. It was like when a zeppelin is on the ground or Led Zeppelin was on the ground and it was repair time.”

That same poster has a small blurb about an upcoming Rolling Stones show that Graham was promoting at the bottom. Graham saw an opportunity to band the groups together to advertise both upcoming shows.

“Bill just said let’s put a little notice at the bottom because Led Zeppelin was a big English act and the Rolling Stones are a big English act, so we thought it would do some advertising for that at that point.”

The things that really stand out about the BG199 poster are the color choices and Tuten’s trademark lettering style. The blue and red offset give a great visual effect to the poster. I asked him if that was done on purpose.

“It was supposed to be that blue and red kind of go together like a little visual sync,” Tuten said. “From blue to red… But I didn’t use enough red. I was more interested in the bold lettering with bolts like an airplane. There were only 3000 of those printed, so that’s not very many really. That why BG222 and The Doors one for BG219, and even ‘the Avocado’ Led Zeppelin (BG170) are hard to find nowadays. I only have two or three left of the Led Zeppelin one.”

Another very famous Tuten poster that was done a bit later has Janis Joplin in a jukebox and very drippy lettering. No one was pleased with that poster initially, Tuten said.

“Jim Marshall (famous rock photographer) did the picture, but both Bill Graham and Jim Marshall called me up early in the morning and were yelling about how they didn’t like the way the poster had turned out. Bill didn’t like the lettering because he said you couldn’t read it, and then Jim didn’t like it because I didn’t use his picture big enough. After it was all said and done they were both fine with it. It was just an in-the-moment thing.”

With The Doors being from Los Angeles I asked Tuten if he had some stories about attending their shows.

“When I was in L.A. in the early-mid 60s I used to go see The Doors all the time when there were like 20 people in the audience,” Tuten said. “I would take something and I‘d go see The Doors and I’d lay down on the floor... 20 feet away from the stage… and they were terrific. Now I wasn’t a trendsetter and didn’t know about that. I just thought that this was really neat and I actually love The Doors very much. I still listen to them to this day. They were very unique, not even a band really, it was poetry set to music. The three instruments with the piano, drums and guitar were not your normal set ups.”

Was this at the famous Whiskey A-Go-Go?

“The Whiskey, and other places they’d play, like little clubs,” Tuten said. “Like in 67’ they had a place called the Kaleidoscope that tried to operate in L.A. At first they were operating out of a place on Vine Street, but they had problems getting permits. The Kaleidoscope had shows at different places while they were getting their hall permits and everything.”

The Kaleidoscope is known for its concert posters that are cut in the shape of a circle. They are extremely rare, with the most valuable advertising for an amazing Doors concert that nearly hurts the eyes to look at. I asked Tuten if that club was influenced by the San Francisco scene, but he explained how both sprung up at about the same time, unaffected by what the other was doing.

“I wouldn’t say they were influenced by the San Francisco scene,” Tuten said. “They both just came together at the same time. It was like when the Beatles showed up in like 64’, that started all the music stuff happening.”

There is an interview with David Crosby where he talked about the influence of The Beatles movie “A Hard Days Night” in making the members of The Byrds start a band. There was a rock scene that was around before the British Invasion, but that was for the rough and tough surfers; the Dick Dale types.

“I was into surf music,” Tuten said. “I used to surf a lot so I started listening to surf music a whole lot. Then the Beatles showed up and then later the Stones. Then all these bands like the Leaves and The Doors and Love and The Buffalo Springfield all emerged. The first really big show I can remember that I saw at the Hollywood Bowl featured the Rolling Stones and opener Buffalo Springfield.”

Surf rocker Link Wray played a show at the NorShor a few years back right before he passed away. When thinking of surf music one name always stands at the pinnacle; Dick Dale. When Dale played the Cabooze about 8 years ago I was amazed by his skill and how he would leave the bar with his cordless Fender and return from outside without missing a beat.

Tuten said, “I went to see him (Dick Dale) at the Rendezvous and ballrooms inHuntington Beach or Balboa and other places down in Southern California at his height. He’s still going up there to Minnesota. That’s a good thing… I used to think that surf music would be easy to play, but the simpler the music gets the more precise you actually have to be to make it sound good. If it’s simple it just doesn’t sound good. So all these surf bands sounded pretty good because they spent a lot of time practicing and stuff.”

Tuten’s BG199 Led Zeppelin concert poster will be on display at the TweedMuseum beginning in June. There will be more from my recent interviews with him about his posters coming soon. Check outwww.thefountainheads.com for more information.