At 82 years old, Sid Bernstein doesn’t have to tell people what he does for a living. He has a huge reputation as the man who promoted some of the most important names in the music industry: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.
Once called the most influential man in music business, Bernstein lives a relatively quiet life in his two-bedroom Manhattan apartment, taking trips from time to time to visit relatives. Over the years, he has made frequent trips to New Jersey to visit relations out near Chatham. During most of his trips, he often stopped in Hoboken for a hot dog before taking the train west.
But the weekend of March 16 to 18, Bernstein isn’t coming to New Jersey for a hot dog; he’ll be appearing at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Secaucus as one of the speakers of this year’s Beatlefest, talking about his experiences booking the Beatles and about his new book Not just the Beatles, which details many of the other acts he’s promoted and managed during his long career.
Bernstein, a poor Jewish kid who grew up in Harlem and eventually became one of the biggest promoters in the music business, often took risks others would not, relying on his instincts to tell him what was the right thing to do. Critics claim Bernstein was one of the prime movers in the early 1960s British invasion, single-handedly responsible for bringing 12 of the principal British bands to America. During the years before and after the Beatles arrived in America in 1964, Bernstein promoted and managed some of the greatest names in jazz and rock and roll, including Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues and others.
Growing up around entertainment
The son of a Jewish tailor, Bernstein was born in The Bronx and later moved to Harlem. Yearly vacations to Jewish resorts in the Catskills section of New York State as a boy brought him his first contact with the entertainment industry. After moving to Harlem, Bernstein became a regular patron of the legendary Apollo Theater, where he saw some of the better musical performances of the era. These experiences, however, did not lead to a musical career of his own. In a self-deprecating humor typical of Jewish comics like Woody Allen, Bernstein said he took mandolin lessons as a kid, but the teacher told him not to come back.
“I once joined a glee club, but I was told not to sing,” he said.
Bernstein’s lack of musical ability, however, did not affect his ability to recognize talent in others, and after taking it upon himself to sell Eddie Cantor song books outside the studios of the Eddie Cantor Show in New York, Bernstein evolved into a natural promoter, eventually booking bands into famous New York City night clubs.
Bernstein’s career grew slowly as he went from ballroom manager to promoter, and he was working for General Artist Corporation when he began to hear about the Beatles.
In mid-1963, he decided to call Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, and ask if the Beatles would like to perform in Carnegie Hall.
“It took me three weeks to find him,” Bernstein recalled.
He couldn’t even find a telephone number for the Beatles despite all the hype, and by accident ran into a man who was trying to get the Beatles records airplay on New York radio stations. He did not know at the time, but Epstein had already arranged to have the group appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Bernstein saw the Beatles for the first time outside the Plaza Hotel in New York. He stood in a crowd of about 1,500 kids and watched the Beatles arrive one at a time. They reminded him of his own kids who were at that time about the same age as the Beatles. He described them as four boys who might have lived next door.
The greatest concert ever?
Not shy to promote his own deeds, Bernstein called a famed Beatles’ performance at Shea Stadium “the greatest concert ever.” Perhaps this is an overstatement, yet many critics claim the performance at the Queens baseball stadium showed the entertainment world that bands like the Beatles could fill huge outdoor venues. The problem was, not many people believed Bernstein when he came up with the idea in late 1964, and though he could get management of the stadium to agree, raising the $40,000 he needed to put on the show might have posed a greater challenge.
Oddly enough, he was thinking about this problem during a stroll through Washington Square Park. He was pushing a baby carriage when kids came up to him asking him what his next promotion was going to be.
“I told them I’m bringing the Beatles to Shea Stadium,” Bernstein said. “The kids wanted to buy tickets right on the spot.”
Bernstein’s instincts told him he had latched onto something good. He rushed to the local post office, opened a mailbox, and then went back to the kids to tell them where they could mail their money orders. Three days later he went back to the post office and found three bags full of mail – containing $304,000.
“I hadn’t done any promotion,” he said. “It was all word of mouth.”
Bernstein, despite having booked them previously at Carnegie Hall, did not fully understand the extent of the Beatles’ power until he booked them at Shea Stadium. He said they could have been the leaders of four nations for the kind of influence they had on the young.
“It was then I understood the incredible power these four guys had,” Bernstein said.
When pressed as to which one was his favorite Beatle, Bernstein hesitantly said John Lennon, while noting he admired the ability of John Lennon and Paul McCartney as a team.
During the 1970s, Bernstein lived directly across Central Park from Lennon and ran across the former Beatle from time to time. Bernstein was only a few blocks away when Lennon was murdered in 1980, one more moment he can’t forget.
“From time to time, I run into Paul [McCartney] and we talk about the Shea Stadium concert, and how much it was a turning point in their careers as well,” Bernstein said.
Promoting for good causes
In 1976, Bernstein attempted to get the Beatles back together for a benefit concert to help Cambodian refugees. His effort failed, he said, because the Beatles breakup was still too fresh in the Fab Four’s minds. In 1994, he tried to host the 25th anniversary of Woodstock at the original site in Bethel, N.Y., but a myriad of regulations and permits delayed the project until he eventually ran out of money.
Almost from the beginning of his career, however, Bernstein has been a social activist. In the years leading up to and through World War II, he worked tirelessly against the Nazi philosophy, and over the years, has often lent his talents to shows that would help a good cause, and though he currently is not promoting any particular band, he still helps those causes he believes worthy.
“I get involve with issues that touch me,” he said. “Music gives you a platform and as a promoter I have even more opportunity. If you care about people and society, you try to do things that are constructive.”
Sid Bernstein will appear at the Crowne Plaza Meadowlands Hotel off Meadowlands Parkway in Secaucus four times over the weekend March 16-18. Call (800) BEATLES or go to www.Beatlefest.com.