Sid Bernstein: Rock’s Most Unlikely Hero

The savvy and affable showman, who brought the Beatles to the U.S., kick-started the British Invasion and changed the course of popular music.

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Aug 22, 2013  |  Updated 10:45 AM CDT
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Rock Stars: Then and Now

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Sid Bernstein helped bring the Beatles to America.

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Sid Bernstein had never heard of the Beatles or listened to their music, which, by 1963, had received precious little radio play in the U.S., even as teenage girls on the other side of Atlantic went wild for the four Liverpudlians.

But the 45-year-old New York concert promoter knew a good thing when he saw it – or at least when he read about it in London’s Daily Mirror. “The word ‘hysteria’ particularly caught my eye,” he recalled in his charming 2002 memoir “It’s Sid Bernstein Calling…”

Bernstein turned “hysteria” into history by booking the relatively unknown band at Carnegie Hall, kick starting the British Invasion and changing the course of popular music. The savvy and affable showman, who died Wednesday at age 95, left the stage as one of rock’s most unlikely heroes.

It’s a stage he helped create, later booking early U.S. shows by the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Animals – and officiating at the marriage of rock and stadiums by bringing the Beatles to Shea Stadium in 1965.

Bernstein, a go-getter with big dreams and the chutzpah to make them happen, wasn’t a performer, but possessed great timing. Not only in seeing the potential of the Beatles just before “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You” and other singles hit big in the U.S., but in his skills as a storyteller.

He had a great tale to tell: How, after many phones calls, he tracked down Brian Epstein to the Liverpool home the Beatles’ manager shared with his mother, Queenie. How he charmed Queenie Epstein by promising to send her copies of The New York Times Book Review. How he assured Brian Epstein the Beatles would do fine at the 2,830-seat Carnegie Hall (“I will not permit my boys to play a house that is not 100 percent full,” Epstein told him).  

It’s a story that never got old as he told it again and again over the decades at The Fest for Beatles Fans conventions, and other Beatle-themed gatherings. Those of us lucky enough to have met him will remember Bernstein as a show business character with character – a kindly man who clearly enjoyed speaking with Beatle fans of all ages.  

The Beatles, no doubt, eventually would have stormed the U.S. without Sid Bernstein. But their debut wouldn’t have been quite the same as the spectacle the world witnessed all those years ago: the thousands screaming on Feb. 7, 1964 as John, Paul, George and Ringo arrived at Kennedy Airport, only recently renamed for the slain young president. The explosion when the band played “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as hundreds swooned in the theater and a then-record 73 million watched from home. The iconic shows at Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium. 

Bernstein, whose show business ties also extended to Judy Garland, Tito Puente, the Rascals and many other entertainment greats, lived a long and, by all accounts, fulfilling life. Still, it’s too bad he passed away before the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America, which would have allowed him a well-deserved final victory lap.

Not that Bernstein was one to complain. Bernstein, who believed in the power of bashert, a Yiddish word that basically means a match meant to be, will be forever tied to the Beatles – and to the fans he helped bring joy by making history out of hysteria.

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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