Fresh off a release party at Bloomingdale’s in the heart of New York City, the Svengali of American music promoters is genuinely surprised at the overwhelming positive response to his autobiography, “Not Just the Beatles …” (Jacques & Flusster Publishing).
As told to author Arthur Aaron, the book gives readers a warm, humorous insight into the mind and soul of a man who managed and promoted such superstars as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Judy Garland and Tony Bennett and was responsible for introducing rock ‘n’ roll to the stages of Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center and Shea Stadium.
Tell him that you were well aware of his important place in rock history before reading the book and he blushes. “Don’t flatter me,” he said recently, “because it’s going to get you everywhere.”
Newspaperman. Nightclub impresario. Music promoter. Manager. Devoted family man. The man responsible for bringing the Beatles to America. The originator of stadium rock. They’re all rolled up into one 82-year-old legend.
Pause & Play – It’s 1963, and rock ‘n’ roll is pretty stagnant. Even Elvis wasn’t a factor at that point. Honestly, what made you think that the Beatles would fly?
Bernstein – “Simply because I was reading about this incredible ascension from being four kids in a little unknown club in Liverpool, and I happened to be an Anglophile who loves British newspapers and happened to be one of the few Americans reading British newspapers regularly. I saw the reports, starting with maybe a two-sentence story about four kids creating some noise. Because the overseas editions of these newspapers were so meager and thin, it wasn’t hard to find them on the entertainment page of these scandal-filled newspapers.
“But when I saw a story in one of the conservative newspapers about six months after I first heard about them, the headline said ‘Beatlemania sweeps Great Britain.’ I thought, ‘God, I gotta bring them here.’ ”
P&P – So, do we have you to blame for stadium rock?
Bernstein (laughing) – “I’m proud of that one, actually. I did it because when I introduced the Beatles to America at Carnegie Hall, I was the first one to secure a date right before (Ed) Sullivan. I turned down a date in Washington, D.C., because my wife then was pregnant and I didn’t want to leave New York even for a two-hour trip. When I secured that first date at Carnegie, the box-office people told me after the first day’s sellout of the two shows – 2,830 seats – they said, ‘You could have brought these people in for two shows a day for the next 30 days.’ We should’ve done it. So, instead of selling them on Madison Square Garden, I talked them into going to Shea Stadium.”
P&P – The shrieking from fans made the concert inaudible.
Bernstein – “No one knew how to do sound in a stadium, so it wasn’t until the second year when I brought them in again, that a guy out of Boston who’s an absolute sound genius made it work a lot better.
“Even people I meet today, ‘Hey, Sid, I was at Shea Stadium,’ we’d talk about the sound, but I stopped talking about the sound because I know what the answer’s going to be: ‘Forget the sound, we were there. We … were … there.’ ”
P&P – Rock fans may be surprised to learn you were the Rascals’ first manager.
Bernstein – “I had met the Rascals in the summer of ’65; I put their name up on the scoreboard (at Shea) – ‘The Rascals are coming! The Rascals are coming!’ A lot of people who hadn’t seen pictures of them thought they were a black group. I sensed something big about them.”
P&P – One of the book’s most humorous passages is when you’re recalling how David Geffen, then an agent, brought in Laura Nyro to play for you, to see if you would like to become her manager.
Bernstein – “She was very good, but I was very tired and I fell asleep during her set. She didn’t talk to me for three or four years, and Geffen eventually became her manager. She was so livid with me, and I don’t blame her. Felix Cavaliere, who was pals with her, he ended putting us back together. I didn’t even want to apologize when he reintroduced me to her because I felt so bad, but we became friends.”
P&P – She was a brilliant songwriter, but was she disappointed in not having commercial success as a solo artist?
Bernstein – “She didn’t want it. She was a real, real … for the lack of a better word … isolationist. A loner, bohemian, like George Harrison. A private life was all she wanted, and she finally got it when she had her first child. She once apologized to me for turning down an interview that I felt was right up her alley; she said, ‘I don’t mean to frustrate you, but I can’t do these things.’ ”
P&P – Where were you when you learned of John Lennon’s death?
Bernstein – “I was a block away. I was at a popular deli called Fine & Shapiro’s, one block west of the Dakota at 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam; I was talking to two agents visiting from California. These agents and Celia Matthau, the former daughter-in-law of Walter Matthau, all they wanted was stories about John Lennon. So here I am, of course, talking about John and the Beatles, and the bus boy is putting the chairs up on the tables, signaling us that the restaurant was closing. As I put these two guys and a lady into a cab in front of the restaurant, I said, ‘As you ride down the end of this street, just before you get to Central Park, on the left will be the Dakota.’
“Had I looked down the block at that point, I would’ve seen lights flashing. I would’ve thought it was a movie. I didn’t walk down that way. I didn’t find out until two hours later in a taxi coming home from the Village. The driver’s radio was playing. The guy was obviously Spanish, and I said, ‘Senor, senor, did I hear correctly?’ He said, ‘Oh, sir, it is terrible. He’s gone.’
“When I got home, I had a page full of messages from friends from the BBC, one even from behind the Iron Curtain. The only interview I accepted was ‘Good Morning, America.’ They sent a limo over that same morning; I said that after the interview I needed to get back to Hunter College to do a lecture. Half the press in New York were at the lecture; somehow they found out about it, and it became a press conference. We all cried. My voice broke; I said, ‘I came here to talk about music, but now it’s about sadness.’ ”
P&P – The book has a down-to-earth quality about it, as if you were in the same room with the reader, recounting these incredible events in your life.
Bernstein – “That gives me goose bumps for the umpteenth time. I’ve heard this from a number of people, friends and strangers. Friends say, ‘Sid, as well as I thought I knew you, I felt I only knew the tip of the iceberg. I just can’t believe what I’m learning about you.’ I just love it. I’m making notes for book two, by the way. There are things I’m remembering every day. I love sharing my wonderful life with everyone.”
ON THE WEB: sidbernsteinpresents.com.