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INTERVIEW

The Show
91-y e a r - o l d s h o w b i z p r o m ot er s i d b er n s t ei n r ef u s es to s lo w d o w n a n d i n d eed p l a n s to a d d e v en m o r e to h i s i m p r es s i v e l i s t o f ac h i e v em en t s . by C H R I S M . J U N I O R

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Sid Bernstein is best known for promoting Beatles concerts in New York. OPPOSITE: He introduced the young British band to the US

ever let it be said that Sid Bernstein is too old to rock ’n’ roll. At an age when most people avoid loud music and crowds at all costs, the 91-year-old Bernstein is not against dropping by a Manhattan club on a Sunday evening and listening to a pickup band play Beatles songs. That’s what he did one night in early November, and one can only imagine what he was thinking about while listening to the music. Maybe he reflected upon the time he talked his way into promoting the Beatles at Carnegie Hall or when he promoted those two legendary Beatles concerts at Shea Stadium. This much is certain: Bernstein’s mind was on the present as well as the future. His appearance at the club wasn’t just for pleasure; while there, he distributed small cards with information about a current act whose name is preceded by the familiar tag “Sid Bernstein presents.” Once a promoter, always a promoter – those aren’t empty words when they come from the mouth of New York native Sid Bernstein, a groundbreaker in concert promotion and artist representation. The list of acts he’s worked with in one capacity or another reads like a who’s who of 20th century entertainers: Tony Bennett, James Brown, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley,

the Rolling Stones and, of course, the Beatles, just to name a few. Framed reminders of his work with the Beatles can be found in Bernstein’s modest apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A gifted storyteller blessed with great recall, Bernstein is actually quite modest about his achievements, and he’s quick to poke fun at himself. Bernstein laughs when talking about his failed attempts as a youth to be a performer. His experience playing the mandolin ended after just six lessons, and the glee club at James Monroe High School in the Bronx bid him farewell after the second meeting. “That’s my history of music,” he says. “They should only see me now.” Bernstein did find his true calling while in high school, promoting his first event—a successful dance—at James Monroe. “I made more money that day than my father, who was a very fine tailor, made in a week,” he says. At age 14, Bernstein signed a teen singer to a one-year contract and negotiated to have his client appear on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a national radio show. That accomplishment required him to think on his feet and bluff his way through unfamiliar territory. He put those skills to good use years later when he arranged to have the Beatles perform at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 12, 1964, the

British band’s second U.S. concert date after its history-making appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show three days earlier. After reading about the success of the Beatles in an English newspaper, Bernstein called Brian Epstein, the band’s manager, at home in Liverpool, England. Without ever hearing a note of music, Bernstein pitched Epstein on the idea of the Beatles performing in America. But prior to 1964, the group was not a musical force in the States, and Epstein
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the list of acts he’s worked with reads like a who’s who of 20th century entertainers.

feared that his clients would end up playing to a meager crowd. Bernstein says he won Epstein over by telling him he’d get the band a date at Carnegie Hall—much easier said than done because the renowned venue had never staged a pop concert. That didn’t deter Bernstein, who tracked down the woman in charge of booking Carnegie Hall and pitched her on scheduling a show there starring “four great boys who are a phenomenon in Great Britain.” Bernstein says the word phenomenon grabbed her attention, and she gave him a contract to fill out. Then something in the contract caught Bernstein’s attention and prompted immediate action on his part. “I didn’t have the $500 for a deposit on the hall,” Bernstein recalls, “so I ran to my closest friend, who happened to be a bookie, and he loaned me the $500. I shot right back—I didn’t want her to change her mind or ask any more questions.” Bernstein also promoted New York concerts by other British Invasion rock bands during the 1960s, but none were bigger than

the Beatles’ performances at Shea Stadium in 1965 and 1966. “I have worked with Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra,” Bernstein says, “but nothing ever came close to the Beatles.” At 91, Bernstein isn’t resting on his laurels, and he jumps at the chance to talk about who he’s working with these days. “I have been hearing a guy in Central Park—I’ve become a big fan,” Bernstein begins. “Every Saturday, he sings one block from Strawberry Fields, where there are always people.” Bernstein then pulls a handful of multicolored cards from his left pants pocket. “So I became a groupie for this guy—his name is David Ippolito. He’s grown into the most incredible performer.” The cards, which contain information about the singer/songwriter’s Dec. 12 show at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, all have the “Sid Bernstein presents” tag above Ippolito’s name. “When he does his concert,” Bernstein says, “he’s going to bust this town wide open.” Spoken like a true promoter.

Bernstein documentary is on the way
Jason Ressler was 8 years old when he met Sid Bernstein, and for a long time, he didn’t know much or really care about Bernstein’s work in concert promotion and artist representation. That changed about 10 years ago when Ressler and his friend Evan Strome were listening to Bernstein tell Beatles stories as Bernstein, in danger of being kicked out of his apartment, took phone calls from his lawyer. That gave Ressler and Strome the idea to make a documentary about Bernstein’s long, multifaceted career and unique life, and they’ve been working on their project ever since. Titled Sid Bernstein Presents, the movie is about much more than its namesake, according to Ressler, who co-directed the documentary with Strome. “We wanted to encompass the American dream—the positives and the negatives, where America has gone today—through Sid Bernstein,” he says. “It’s seeing how things have changed, seeing the values, seeing what he sacrificed in what he did right and wrong. I think he changed multiple times the musical and social world for the better.” Sid Bernstein Presents contains interviews with a variety of industry heavyweights, including James Brown and Tito Puente, both of whom Ressler says acknowledge how Bernstein helped change race relations by booking them in concert venues that traditionally staged white acts. Having spent about a decade working with Bernstein on the documentary, Ressler totally understands what made him a success. “He’ll just keep at you if he wants something,” Ressler says. “In trying to promote an act, he’ll just say, ‘Well, I think we should do it.’ And he’ll call you back and say, ‘Let’s talk about this. I think you’re wrong.’ Over and over–it’s casually pushy and subtle in some ways, but he won’t budge. “I knew he was a great promoter when we were sitting in a White Castle with him after shooting,” Ressler adds. “We buy burgers, and he says, ‘Wow, this is the best White Castle I’ve ever had.’ And we were eating and saying, ‘Yeah, this really is. He must know the best White Castle around.’ “Two hours later, we were like, ‘Wait, we’ve just been promoted. White Castle has been making the same thing for years, and it’s the same everywhere.’ He convinces himself, and then he convinces you – that’s a promoter.” As of early November, Sid Bernstein Presents was about 95 percent finished. Ressler and Strome are still accepting tax-deductible donations in order to clear music and footage rights; the co-directors are seeking a theatrical release in 2010. For more information about the documentary, visit www.sidbernsteinpresents.com.
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PHOTOGRAPHs: PHiliP D HOnG; newscOm/ZumA PHOTOs

Jason Ressler is a co-director of the Bernstein documentary

Bernstein retains much Beatles’ concert memorabilia
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