For Sid, it's Not Just the Beatles

Promoter Sid Bernstein found fame with the Fab Four. It opened the door for him to book other top groups, including the Rolling Stones.

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

The Beatles were introduced to America on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964. That monumental appearance was watched by 73 million viewers, but it was actually one of the last in a series of events that brought Beatlemania to these shores.

Entertainment impresario Sid Bernstein, who had already promoted or managed such diverse acts as Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis and Fats Domino, had actually signed the Fab Four for two concerts at New York's famed Carnegie Hall nearly a year before anyone in the United States had ever heard of them.

The 82-year-old Bernstein, whose exploits in the entertainment world are legendary, will appear as a guest speaker this weekend, March 17 and 18, at the annual New York Metro Beatlefest at the N.J. Crowne Plaza Meadowlands Hotel in Secaucus, N.J., to promote his memoir, Not Just the Beatles.

It was while he was working at a talent agency in late 1962 and taking a night course that recommended reading books about democracy in England that Bernstein began to read English newspapers. The entertainment sections had small items, and then larger ones, about a band from Liverpool that was creating hysteria among the youths of Great Britain. Sensing that he might be on to something that could develop into the excitement once created by Elvis Presley — and before him, Frank Sinatra — the promoter booked the group in early 1963 for two shows on Feb. 12, 1964.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr enjoyed tremendous success in their homeland in 1963, but their records had gone largely unnoticed in the United States. Beatles manager Brian Epstein reserved the right to pull out of the Carnegie Hall concerts if Bernstein couldn't guarantee radio airplay of the band's records.

As luck would have it, a disc jockey from Washington, D.C., went to England on vacation and witnessed the excitement, and Ed Sullivan happened to be passing through London's Heathrow Airport at the same time that a mob had gathered to greet the Fab Four, so he inquired about the band and discovered Bernstein's plans for Carnegie Hall. Radio stations began to play Beatles records, and Sullivan agreed to have the boys on his show three days before the concert, which virtually guaranteed a sellout.

"That's the nature of the business," said Bernstein. "There's always a lot of luck involved. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time."

The television and concert appearances spawned the British Invasion, and Bernstein booked one act after another — the Kinks, the Animals, Herman's Hermits, Gerry & the Pacemakers — at various places in New York, including Carnegie Hall, until one band got him banned from the venerable venue.

"The Rolling Stones' crowd was different," said Bernstein. "They had never had a rock 'n' roll concert at Carnegie Hall prior to the Beatles, and that went very well, but the Stones crowd got them nervous. The kids didn't do any damage, but they were older and more excited, so the people at Carnegie Hall asked me not to come back."

The promoter simply moved to other places, such as New York's Academy of Music and the Paramount Theater, for his other concerts.

When the Beatles planned a return visit to the States the following summer, however, Bernstein knew that he needed a larger venue. He booked Shea Stadium, and he and Epstein agreed on a date — Aug. 15, 1965. Unfortunately, Epstein also asked for a $50,000 deposit and forbade Bernstein from promoting or advertising the concert until he had the money.

Undaunted, Bernstein ended up getting the funds for the deposit from ticket sales generated by word of mouth by the teenagers in his Greenwich Village neighborhood who were constantly asking him about Beatles concerts.

"I lived a couple of blocks from Washington Square, and I used to walk my son to the playground in the park," Bernstein said. "I mentioned (the Shea concert) to some of the kids, and the reaction was so strong that I took out a post office box (to handle ticket requests). I passed that information along to the kids, and word spread like wildfire.

"Kids came from all five of the boroughs (in New York) to hang out at Washington Square. It was a great meeting place, with people coming from all over. Word (of the concert) just spread."

And the response was much more than even Bernstein could have imagined when he stopped by the post office to check the box.

"I would have been happy to see fifty pieces of mail," he said.

Instead, he had three large sacks of ticket orders, and when they were processed, he had more than $300,000. Bernstein had sold out the 55,000-seat Shea Stadium without doing any advertising.

"I still have the posters that I had prepared (to promote the show)," he said. "I never had to use them."

The Beatles played Shea again in the summer of 1966 and stopped touring by the end of that year.

Bernstein, meanwhile, continued to promote a number of other artists all over New York, including a "Peace Concert" that was first held in Madison Square Garden in 1970 and later at Shea Stadium.

Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, had come up with the idea to protest the country's involvement in the Vietnam War, and he wanted Bernstein to take it on the road. Unfortunately, they hit a roadblock when they tried to bring the show to Philadelphia.

"Frank Rizzo," Bernstein wrote in his book, "refused to approve the concert because he was worried that there might be some demonstrations. The truth was that the mayor was politically right wing and supported the U.S. participation in Vietnam."

Although Veterans Stadium already had been booked for the show, the promoters couldn't get a permit, despite going to court several times to oppose Rizzo.

"He was tough," said Bernstein. "He didn't want that show in Philadelphia. We went to court several times, and he won."

Ironically, Bernstein was a guest of Rizzo's when the late mayor had a talk show on WCAU-AM (now WPHT).

"We had a laugh about it," Bernstein recalled. "Somehow (that incident) wasn't important to anyone anymore."

Despite the passage of time, though, interest in the Beatles has never waned. More than 30 years after the quartet split up — and 20 years since the tragic slaying of Lennon — the band's latest release, 1, has been at or near the top of the album charts since its release three months ago.

"Their popularity keeps going, and my feeling is that it will never stop," said Bernstein. "Their impact will never be diminished."

This story was published on March 14, 2001, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.


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