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The oldies.about.com Interview: Sid Bernstein
The man who brought the Beatles to America

Sid Bernstein with old friend Paul McCartney. Used with permission.

 Elsewhere on the Web
• Another Sid interview at Sixtiespop.com
• NY Rock's Bernstein interview
• A Bernstein interview excerpt from Abbeyrd's Beatles Page

Sid Bernstein is a truly legendary promoter in the music business, right up there in the pantheon with folks like Bill Graham. And much of that fame is due to his interaction with a certain Liverpool foursome. For it was Sid Bernstein who first brought the Beatles to America.

Sid tells that story in his autobiography, Not Just The Beatles, and expounds on it below, but Sid's got plenty more where that came from: he's promoted everything and everyone from Tony Bennett to Green Day. (Sid was responsible for the '94 Woodstock. You know, the one that didn't end in tragedy.) The title of his autobiography says it all: he's not ONLY the man who made the famous Shea Stadium concert happen, but he will forever be primarily associated with it.

It's not hard to see how Sid succeeded in his profession: he's an instantly likeable, garrulous sort who's blessed with an infectious energy. Over and over, what comes across is a genuine love of his work combined with a sense of wonder that he should be lucky enough to do it. Although he never became extremely close to the Fabs, he did know them fairly well, especially John and Paul. Reason enough to feel lucky, I'd say.

You were the first man to bring the Beatles to America after reading about them in the English newspapers. But I understand you had trouble finding them?

The rock and roll area [in New York] was narrowed to 10 or 12 blocks, from 50th to 60th St. Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, all the people in the music business were there. So it was easy to get into the area. Bud Halliwell was an indie promo man there at the time and he was getting $75 a week - not a bad figure, but not great - to try and get and get some airplay for the Beatles. And here I am trying to find Brian Epstein, he's living with his mom in a beautiful Tudor house in England, and I can't find out where. So I ran into Bud, and he said, "Sid, I'm working on a British group, and I can't get the airplay." I said, "Who are they?" He says, "The Beatles." I says "Oh my gosh, I've been trying to find Brian Epstein!"

So I call, and his mom picks up the phone, and starts talking about the book review section of the New York Times. Which she can't find there. So I says, "I'll send it to you every week." And she puts Brian on, and I give him an offer he couldn't refuse -- Carnegie Hall.

Did you have to sell him on it?

Well, he sounded negative at first. He was not interested, because he was not getting any airplay in America. America was stictly R&B and pop, you follow? Como, Sinatra, no foreign groups, no Germans, no English, nobody. White and black American music, but no foreign groups. 100 percent American. But the language is the same, you follow? I had to get them! And it turned out I was the only American calling him.

Brian was one of the very few guys in the history of the pop music business you could make an important deal with and know that it was gonna come out the way you said on the phone. A very extremely honorable man.

What were your first impressions of the Beatles themselves?

I was in the crowd of what I estimated at about 1500 kids, with all the wooden horses and barricades around the Plaza Hotel, when they arrived, one at a time. I was watching them appear about a minute apart, and here I am responsible for them coming, and no one recognized me! I'm there, watching what became the entry of British music into the world, becuase the Carnegie Hall at that time was respected around the world. Because that date was secured before Ed Sullivan got into the picture. And here I am, and I'm just Someone. One of the crowd. It was amazing.

Then I went up and I was let into the hotel, and I met [the Beatles] in the suite.

What did they seem like?

I had four sons and two daughters, with tons of friends. And they were all the same age as the Beatles. And that's what they reminded me of; they reminded me of my boys and all their friends. Four typical boys next door, four guys, with thousands of people mobbing them, and they were still being ordinary 20 year olds. The picture I have of them is them looking out the window, laughing, giggling, like any four kids I know. Not really realizing the power that they had accumulated. Not understanding what power can do if used in the right way.

After Carnegie Hall, you decided to take the Beatles to the next level with a concert at Shea Stadium. The most amazing thing about that first Shea concert was that it was sold out with no advertising!

Brian had asked me not to advertise until I paid him, which I understood completely. But he said, "I can't stop you from talking about them, now can I?" So when I would walk in the park, kids would come up and ask about the Beatles, when they were playing again. And I went down to the post office and got a PO box, and I started to tell the kids, just send your money there. In a matter of three weeks we had sold the stadium, just from word of mouth. Letters, letters. Even from behind the Iron Curtain. We never needed an ad. Not one.

They certainly must have been aware of their power at Shea Stadium. For one thing, a rock act had never even attempted a stadium before.

Shea Stadium... there were so many elements. There's not enough time on the phone, not enough space in the the book, to capture it. But above all, what struck me was the POWER. The POWER of these four boys. I would say that four leaders of four nations could not have that kind of influence on people. I have a feeling they could have changed the American elections. Nixon would not have won if they would have said "We like Humphrey."

Some would say that John particularly posed that sort of threat to the Establishment.

Yes he was. He was a prime target. They feared his influence.

Would you say his murder was politically motivated? Some have suggested that.

I wouldn't want to comment on that.

Understandable. Where were you when it happened?

A block away. One block away in a restaurant. Talking to one actress and two agents, for hours we sat there, talking about the Beatles. Mainly John and then Paul and then the Beatles. I didn't hear anything at the time, but I found out about it not long afterwards.

In 1976, you attempted to get the Beatles back together for a concert that would benefit the Cambodian refugees. The ad you took out was quite striking. You basically offered to present them anytime, anywhere, for whatever they wanted.

It was an open letter to the four boys. I felt, as an agent, reaching these guys through their agents, managers, lawyers, accountants, would be useless. (These guys didn't have entourages, which amazed me.) So I wanted to get THEIR personal attention. Not for personal gain, but because I felt these boat people, not fed, not properly clothed, needed help. I felt there was a need. And who better than these four guys? Not just to raise the money, but to create the SENSITIVITY. They were very young men, still. Not seasoned veterans. But enjoying such prosperity. I mean, how many people get that in their lives? Only Presidents of nations.

The sense I get is that they would rather have worked for causes on their own at that point without the pressure of being a "Beatle."

It could very well be. I suffered through that, I felt the sensitivity of that. I wasn't cocky about the results, you follow? I knew it was a long shot.

When asked about it in an interview, John said, "[That's just] Sid with his Yiddish schmaltz, on bended knee doing Al Jolson." How did you receive that?

I was hurt. But I realized later that it was just John's sarcasm, his humor. And when he greeted me the next time we met, it was as he'd never said it and didn't know how disturbed I was by it.

How well did you know John and Yoko?

I saw them quite often. John introduced me to her several times, always forgetting. Yoko would say to him, "How many times are you going to introduce me?" It was our little joke.

How did they seem to be living their lives?

Very closed. Protected. Almost isolated.

During his "Lost Weekend," as it's called, he certainly wasn't living that way. He became notorious for his antics on the town. He called you during that period, correct?

Yes. It was with Harry Nilsson. 1974. I have this representation of being a... maven, if you will, of Italian food, pizza and pasta. So John called me, trying to find a good Italian restaurant. John wanted pizza?

No, "pizza" would be easy to spell. [laughing] John needed Harry to spell the Italian dishes I recommended, to write them down so that they could order them later.

My son Beau, who's now teaching English in Kyoto, Japan, answered the phone. And said, in his four-year-old language, "Dad, it's John Lennon on the phone." And then John asking me would I recommend a good Italian restaurant. I recommended Paolucci's, in Little Italy.

Did he behave when he went there?

Sure! He went down there with his group of friends, who included Nilsson, and eight or ten rock stars. Like that guy with the snakes.

Alice Cooper?

Right. Alice Cooper. So when I finally called the owner, he said, "Sidney, you would not believe it. They were the nicest, most well-behaved, well-mannered group." And while they were there, no one even bothered him for autographs. Mr. Paolucci told me that John left the largest tip they ever had.

I understand you knew Linda before she married Paul.

Yes, I did. I didn't know who her father was... She was such a lovely kid. She was a great young photographer, with her camera, following the Rascals, who I managed. She was so special. She was one of the few kids I favored.

You must have been doubly happy when she married Paul.

I was thrilled. The right guy, for the right girl.

When was the last time you heard from Paul?

It wasn't a chat but a very wonderful, lovely, personal note from Paul, who was aware that i was working on a music festival to raise money for cancer research. Two years ago, I paid 10 visits, in one year, to Liverpool. They had made me an ambassador to the US, which I go into in the book. I came there a second time because they wanted to send a plaque that they made up, and I told the Lord Mayor I'd rather come and pick it up. So four or five weeks later, I'm back in Liverpool.

As a result of that plaque and the kind of treatment I got there, I kind of felt like I semi-belonged. I decided to stay five days, and I was taken to the Roy Castle Foundation, which is a foundation supported by the citizens of Liverpool. It was named after Roy Castle who was a Liverpool boy who made it big. In the last two years of his life, he found out he had Cancer, and all he did was go around the counrty raising funds for cancer research. When I was told about Roy Castle, I made several visits there, and I saw this wonderful little building, with scientists and young doctors working in the laboratory there.

They needed at least 2 million dollars a year [to operate], so I decided on the second trip that I wanted to pay back Liverpool for what they had done for me. So now I would be an American bringing music to Liverpool. I wanted to raise the funds to do a huge festival, to raise funds that would all be left in the city of Liverpool. We would have it at a racetrack called Aintree, and we'd set aside 6 million to pay performers, and we'd gross 20 to 30 million, not counting recording rights, closed circuit rights, video rights. The last huge concert there was Michael Jackson. 120,000 people. And I said to them, "How's 150,000 people?" And I got "yes"es. And I thought, my God, I'm gonna pull this off. But I realized later that I couldn't raise what I thought was going to be necessary to put it on.

But during those visits to Liverpool, the word got out. And I get the loveliest note from Paul McCartney saying "Dear Sid," or words to this effect, "I do believe the festival that you're planning for Liverpool is gonna be a huge success, and I wish you every good luck in it. However, I must tell you, because of events in this past year, I have such a backlog of commitments that I just don't find myself free or able to do it. But I know you'll be a huge success."

It was not the secretary [who wrote it]. I felt it was him. And I felt he was alluding to what had just happened with Linda.

In the book, you come off particularly impressed with George Martin.

George Martin returned a phone call that I made to him about participating in this world music festival I wanted to do. He called from home - he lives way out in the country - and said he would SO love to get together with me and talk. A couple of weeks later he's at a hotel in New York and calls me and says "Sid, before I go to dinner, I have about an hour and half time, would you like to go to the hotel? We can have a drink and chat." And at this point I'd met him twice. I said great. And I saw him, and at the age of 72 or 73, he's easily one of the most hansdome men... I mean, step aside, Sean Connery. The features, the manner, the charm.

For an hour and a half I'm sitting with one of the great music figures of all time. And he said "I love the idea, Sid, but I must tell you. I'm not doing much work... I'm just too old to do this." He'd been having hearing problems. He says, "However, as you get further along in your plans, why don't you give me a ring?" And he gives me his contact information. And then he says, "By the way, Sid, I know you mentioned to me that you're interested in having the London Philharmonic there. I must tell you that in Liverpoool we have a great orchestra there, and you could save the money you would have spent otherwise and put it into your cause." I says, "George, that's exactly what I want to do." He goes on, "Sid, there's an enormous amount of talent that sits right there at LIPA [the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, which Paul founded]." Without once mentioning Paul McCartney's name.

In the book, you say that Brian Epstein was the "Fifth Beatle," and Martin certainly the sixth.

I think I should change that. I think, easily, if anyone in the world deserves "Fifth Beatle," it should be George Martin. I'm not a musician. I can't break it down. But I have a feeling that his presence and his... magnificence... had to play an important role. We're talking about four kids, at that time. He lent them the maturity that they needed.

So what's next for Sid Bernstein?

Well, my life would not be complete unless I go back and have one more home run at Shea Stadium.

With?

You're the first one to hear this... Lenny Kravitz. Do you know him?

Sure. I've been listening to him since "Let Love Rule."

He went to school with my boys, public school. He's been to the house twice in the past year, and he said, "Sid, one of my goals is to have you present me at Carnegie Hall." But if it's possible, I want him at Shea Stadium. I'm saving Carnegie Hall for another return engagement of a guy that I've been a big fan of, a country musician named Steve Wariner.

Are you comfortable with the fact that you'll always be mainly associated with the Beatles, no matter who you present?

Certainly. It's just amazing... I brought the Rolling Stones here the first five times, and that was immediately following the Beatles. And yet hardly anyone asks me about the Rolling Stones, as huge as they are, as big as they were. Stories, stories, wherever I go in the world, inevitably people will ask me. To have been touched by that, three times in your life...

Well, you did set it up.

Well, it's about them, not me. I just want to be thought of as a citizen of the world. The whole world, not just my own singular world.

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