Sid Bernstein: Impresario who was best known for putting on the Beatles at Shea Stadium

 

As a noted American impresario, primarily in New York, Sid Bernstein had success presenting many show business greats including Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Elvis Presley, but he is best known for presenting the Beatles at Carnegie Hall on their initial visit in February 1964 and then at Shea Stadium in 1965 and 1966. He enjoyed recounting his achievements, admittedly with a little embellishment, but that is also what made him so engaging: he was a larger-than-life character in every sense of the phrase.

Bernstein never knew his parents as he was adopted shortly after his birth in 1918 by two New York immigrants from Kiev, Israel and Ida Bernstein. Ida had lost a leg through gangrene and was not capable of having children of her own. Israel was a tailor and although the couple spoke Yiddish, the young Sid learnt English as quickly as he could. An early memory was discovering Cushman's Bakery when he was seven, and it developed into a lifelong passion for food. The wartime memories in his autobiography, Not Just The Beatles… (2000) are full of comments about the poor food and his attempts to get something better. During the war he served in Europe and shot at enemy aircraft, but he was always relieved that he never, to his knowledge, killed anyone.

After the war Bernstein managed a Latin ballroom in Brooklyn. This led to him managing the popular Esy Morales Orchestra, but Morales died in 1950, at the age of 33, from diabetic complications. Bernstein took employment with the booking agency, Shaw Artists, and then General Artists Corporation (GAC) and he was responsible for placing some major acts into Carnegie Hall, including Tony Bennett. He presented Miles Davis for a week of concerts at the Apollo in Harlem and helped to organise rock'n'roll shows at the Brooklyn and New York Paramounts with the disc jockey Alan Freed. He defied the tough negotiator, Allen Klein, by refusing to give his artist Sam Cooke top billing.

In 1961, Bernstein took over the organisation of the Newport Jazz Festival. Although it had been a success in earlier years, the residents of Rhode Island were tiring of this invasion of their privacy. Bernstein retaliated by adding two performances that the residents would definitely want to see – Bob Hope and Judy Garland.

Bernstein told me in 1997, "Judy Garland would be in a stupor, drunk – she couldn't have found her own way up the eight stairs to the stage, but once she had that stage and once that pinpoint hit her face, she threw back her shoulders, and she was Garland. She never disappointed an audience: she was magic, unique, the greatest single act I have ever seen."

As a diversion, Bernstein studied politics at the New School in Greenwich Village. A lecturer instructed the class to read a British newspaper each week to see how UK politics was reported. Around September 1963, Bernstein became intrigued by the references to the Beatles, who were taking the country by storm. He'd not heard their records, but his instinct told him to do something.

As GAC showed no interest, Bernstein contacted the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, on his own behalf. He offered to present the Beatles at the highly prestigious Carnegie Hall. "It worked in my favour that the Beatles were unknown in America," he recalled. "Carnegie had a policy of no rock bands, but they didn't know who the Beatles were when I booked it." Bernstein booked in Shirley Bassey and Tony Bennett at the same time, so they may have been accepted through association with acts who were definitely OK.

In January 1964 the Beatles exploded in America and became bigger than Elvis within a fortnight, topping the charts with "I Want To Hold Your Hand". They came to New York for The Ed Sullivan Show and two Carnegie Hall concerts. The concerts were sold out before they even set foot in America. Said Bernstein, "Carnegie had never seen a gathering like it – all the noise and screaming – and they asked me never to come back again. I had to use other venues for a few years after that."

Bernstein wanted to capitalise immediately on the Beatles' success. He told Epstein that they should book Madison Square Garden and he would have the tickets printed within a day. Epstein thought it better to leave the crowds waiting for the next visit.

By then Bernstein had had a better idea. He offered Epstein the 55,000- seater baseball venue, Shea Stadium, for a mammoth concert. No pop stars had ever played such a huge venue, but Bernstein was so confident that he offered to pay Epstein $10 for each unpaid seat. With only word-of-mouth publicity, the event sold out, but the maximum ticket price was only $5. "You couldn't hear the music, but you could hear the roar of the crowd in the Bronx, and Shea Stadium is in Queen's," Bernstein recalled. "There were 1,000 press and 55, 000 pays and it was so new that I underestimated my profit. I didn't know that I would have to pay $25,000 insurance. On a gate of $304,000 I made a profit of $6,500. Brian Epstein was very upset when he heard that and wanted to give me a gift. I said, 'Brian your gift was in giving me the boys.'" The concert became legendary and Lennon later told Bernstein that Shea was "the top of the mountain".

T he Beatles made a second appearance at Shea a year later. It was at the height of the controversy following John Lennon's comments about being bigger than Jesus. Bernstein ignored the furore, and he told me, "Oh, the religious fervour was much greater down south. New York is a liberal city." By then Bernstein was managing his own group, the Young Rascals, later the Rascals. They made only their second public appearance at Shea Stadium, and the publicity led to a succession of hit singles including the US No 1s, "Good Lovin'", "Groovin'" and "People Got To Be Free".

Although Bernstein never pursued presenting the Beatles at Madison Square Garden, he did promote several rock concerts there including the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues. He introduced the Bay City Rollers to America and, because he was now a better negotiator, he made more money from the Rollers than the Beatles.

Bernstein married the actress and singer, Geraldine Gale, in 1963: she was in the Broadway production of The Sound Of Music and Sid loved telling his friends that "I married a nun". They were to have six children who all helped Bernstein with his later productions.

After the Beatles broke up Bernstein made a few attempts to get them together, once in a concert for the Vietnamese boat people. Huge fees were bandied about but Bernstein regarded it as self-publicity as he knew they would never be accepted. He saw John Lennon in New York from time to time, often recommending restaurants, and once having Lennon as his guest at a Jimmy Cliff concert he was promoting at Carnegie Hall.

I met Bernstein several times when he visited Liverpool in the late 1990s. He was not tall but he was a huge man who existed on hamburgers and ice cream. Indeed, until I met Bernstein, I didn't even know it was possible to eat that much ice cream. He was delightful company, taking a genuine interest in what other people were doing and always touching you as he spoke. He was a persuasive speaker, smiling broadly and speaking very slowly in a low, sincere voice, telling Liverpool councillors, "I would like to do something important in Liverpool. Liverpool made it possible for me to educate six children. I owe the Beatles, I owe John Lennon, I owe Liverpool. Do you follow me?" The councillors appointed him a cultural ambassador, but his plans for a huge festival at Aintree Racecourse never materialised.

Bernstein published his autobiography, Not Just The Beatles... in 2000, and it was reissued in a revised edition with an established publisher as It's Sid Bernstein Calling (2001). He planned a further book based on war experiences and his thoughts for world peace.

Spencer Leigh

Sidney Bernstein, impresario: born New York 12 August 1918: married 1963 Geraldine Gale (four sons, two daughters); died 21 August 2013.

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