If Sid Bernstein hadn’t called Brian Epstein – or, maybe, if BernSTEIN hadn’t called EpSTEEN, or, even better, if Sid hadn’t called Brian – the Beatles probably still would have been a culture-changing phenomenon, but it might have taken a few more years to happen.
Bernstein was a New York City-born music promoter whose most well-known coup was bringing the Fab Four to the United States, first to Carnegie Hall and then, even more spectacularly, to a sold-out Shea Stadium. He died in 2013 at 95.
His exploits were chronicled by Arthur Aaron of Fort Lee in “It’s Sid Bernstein Calling,” and Aaron remembers his friend with both love and admiration.
“He was a visionary,” Aaron said. “And he was so low-key that he never got the approbation he should have gotten.”
In the course of his long life, Bernstein met most of the luminaries in the music world. “He is the only man who had a direct line from Sinatra to Elvis to the Beatles,” Aaron said. (“And Sinatra asked him about Israel,” he added. Sinatra was a very active supporter of Israel even before it became a state.)
And if he was a visionary, what was his vision? “He intuited that these boys” – Bernstein, like Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, always called them “the boys,” Aaron said – would be something special.
Arthur Aaron wrote the book on Sid Bernstein.
“He was an agent,” Aaron said. “He wasn’t really interested in rock and roll. He didn’t know the Beatles’ music.”
Bernstein fought in Europe during World War II. When he returned – trying to recover from that experience, find himself, and fit into the new economy – he became a music promoter; he booked Latin groups, and did well enough. Keeping a promise to himself, he took some courses at the New School in lower Manhattan. During a course taught by the journalist and political scientist Max Lerner, ducking reading assignments, he found himself reading British newspapers at a 42nd Street newsstand. He traced the ascent of a new group called the Beatles, as its coverage went from a short one-column notice to four columns and beyond. “He intuited that it was a phenomenon,” Aaron said. “So he found Brian Epstein.”
It was his call to Epstein, the first of many, that changed Bernstein’s life, and the course of cultural history as well.
(And they pronounced each other’s names as ending in “steen,” he added.)
When Bernstein called, Epstein was interested. Bernstein talked about Carnegie Hall, and Epstein, who was a wealthy, well-educated Englishmen, got it right away.
He also talked to Brian’s mother, Queenie, “and they became fast friends.” Eventually Bernstein grew close to the entire family; he and Brian “came to love each other,” Aaron said; and Bernstein grew even closer to Epstein’s brother Clive.
“I think it had something to do with them both being Jewish,” Aaron said. “Brian was brought up in a traditional home, with Shabbat – and there is Hebrew on his grave. I think that Brian responded to Sid because of that.”
Whatever the reason, Bernstein persuaded Epstein to bring the Beatles to New York to appear at Carnegie Hall in 1964. That appearance was hugely successful. On the same trip, the Fab Four appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and that appearance broke all existing records for television viewership.
Next, in the fall of 1965, Bernstein called Epstein to try to persuade him to send the boys back for another concert the next fall. “I’d like to put them in a stadium,” he said; he was thinking of Shea, the then-new New York Mets’ home in Flushing Meadows in Queens, next to the 1964 World’s Fair. Shea had 55,000 seats, and Epstein had a policy of not booking any venue unless he was sure that the Beatles could pack it. Yes, the Beatles were hugely popular, but still, Shea was far bigger than anyplace they’d yet played. “It took a leap of faith on Epstein’s part, and some cajoling from Sid,” Aaron said. ‘That’s a lot of seats,'” Aaron reports that Epstein said.
“‘How much are you going to charge?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Sid told him. ‘$5.50, $5.75.'” And if he couldn’t fill the stadium, Bernstein added, he’d pay Epstein $10 for every unsold seat. “Brian laughed, and Sid said that there wouldn’t be any seats unsold.”
There was another consideration, too, Aaron added. All the Beatles, and most particularly George Harrison, were worried about their security, and Epstein shared that fear. “I know what they meant, because I was there at that concert,” Aaron said. “The sound was a din, a constant roar, like Niagara Falls. It just keeps coming. It never stops.” It was terrifying, for the Beatles as well as for some of the audience. And it got in the way. “You couldn’t even really hear the music, except intermittently,” Aaron said. “And the Beatles only played for 22 minutes. It wasn’t even about the music.”
Epstein and Bernstein agreed that Bernstein would present the Beatles, with the understanding that he had to come up with a down payment in January. Until then he could not publicize it officially, but, as Epstein said, “Sid, I can’t stop you from talking about it.
“So Sid hangs up the phone, goes home – he lives on 10th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan – and goes into Washington Square Park,” Aaron said.
“By this time, Sid Bernstein had become the Pied Piper of the neighborhood. Whenever he’d go into the park, kids would say, ‘What’s next, Mr. Bernstein?’ This time, he said ‘The Beatles will be in Shea Stadium in August.’ There was pandemonium in the park, kids taking money out of their pockets.
“Bernstein said, ‘Hey, kids, I just made the arrangements today. Give me some time.’
“He goes home, drops off his kid, and takes himself to the 18th Street post office, pays $3.50, and rents a post office box. Then he goes back home, gets the kid, and goes back to the park,
“The word had spread like wildfire, and by then the kids are all over him, trying to give him money. He says, ‘Here’s what you gotta do, kids. Send money orders or checks – no cash,’ and he gives them the post office box number.
“Then he goes back home, and that’s the end of that.
“Over the next three, four weeks, as he walks around the neighborhood every so often a kid will come over and ask for the post office box number, and finally, after a month or so, he decides, ‘I gotta go see what I got.’
“So he goes to the post office. Says to himself, ‘If there are 50 things inside that box I’ll be very happy. If there are 100, I’ll do a jig – but I can’t dance. And if there are 500, I’ll go get drunk – but I don’t drink.’
“So he goes into the post office. The boxes are filled from a room behind them, and there’s a guy there, hanging over the bottom part of the door into the room, and Sid sees that the room is filled.
“Then he says to the guy he’s forgotten his key, and the guy says, “What’s your name, buddy?’ Sid says, ‘My name is Sid Bernstein.’ The guy says, ‘What’s your business,’ and Sid says, ‘I’m in the mail order business.’
“‘The guy says, ‘You must have some business.’
“And then the guy calls to someone else for help, and they bring out three army duffel bags, huge bags, filled to the top.”
It was all checks for the concert, which sold out, “and they had to return a lot of the money because there were no more seats,” Aaron said. “They could have sold it out twice over.”
There was never an advertising campaign for that concert; it sold out entirely by word of mouth, Aaron said.
Sid Bernstein was responsible for far more than the Beatles; in fact, Aaron said, he brought all but two of the original 13 “British invasion” bands to the United States, he made it possible for Judy Garland to resurrect her career and for Tony Bennett to prolong his, and he represented the Rascals, who became the number one group in the world for 30 months.
But none of the many speakers at his funeral discussed these “monumental accomplishments,” Aaron said.
Instead, “People spoke of his gentle nature. Of how soft spoken he was. Of how accessible and open he was. How he dreamt of a better world, in which people would respect and take care of each other. How self-deprecating and humble he was. How he believed in live and let live.”
In fact, Aaron said, “they spoke mainly about how much they loved him.”