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What do the Beatles, Tony Bennett, the Rolling Stones, Fats Domino, Tito Puente, Judy Garland and a host of other luminaries have in common? They all have been touched, in some way, by the inimitable promoter, agent and manager extraordinaire Sid Bernstein.
One could call Sid a "dream merchant," for he has been solely, or partially, responsible for shaping the careers of some of the greatest and most popular celebrities of our time. After all, he was the man who had the vision to single-handedly bring the Beatles to America!
But let us digress a bit and examine the humble beginnings of an entertainment impresario who has made show business history time and time again.
Sid was born on August 12th, 1918 in New York City, the sole son adopted by Russian immigrants Israel and Ida Bernstein. He was raised in a supportive and loving home and, although his given name was Sid, his parents and grandmother often referred to him in Yiddish as Simcha. The name stood for happiness and was a euphemism for partying and celebration. Considering how he ended up spending most of his life in music and entertainment, the family name was most apropos and prophetic.
Bernstein was an industrious youth often working in his father's tailor shop making deliveries and the like. Early on he also developed an interest in the arts. At thirteen he would go downtown to Manhattan avidly taking in movies, stage and vaudeville shows at the various theaters there. It was also at this time that young Sid began to exhibit the talents of salesmanship and promotion that would serve him so well later in life. While in high school, he heard an uncommonly beautiful voice singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at an assembly in the school auditorium. He quickly sought out the fellow student and, after much deliberation, convinced young Sol Strausser, the singer, to allow Sid the opportunity to try and get him a spot on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a popular radio program at that time. Sid was definitely bitten by the music biz bug, at this point, and with some success getting his young friend and classmate a shot on the program, he went on promoting local dances and other related events in his neighborhood.
Fast forward a few years to the days of World War II where Sid was stationed in France. It was the town of Dijon, the famous European mustard capital to be exact, and besides his military duties as part of the 602nd Triple A Gun Battalion, he published a newspaper filled with items from back home, entertainment and lifestyle information for the serviceman called The Comeback Diary. During the latter days of the war, Bernstein's captain approached him about branching out from his journalistic pursuits in favor of another form of morale building. "He told me that a lot of the servicemen were being taken advantage of in the area cafes with high prices and so forth," explains Sid. "The captain asked me what I'd like to do after the war was over. I said 'anything but carry a rifle around anymore.' I had been writing in the paper about wanting to establish a G.I. nightclub for the guys, and the captain gave me the go ahead to start one." Soon after, Sid acquired a location in town, requisitioned tables, chairs and furnishings, hired waitresses and cooks and, in no time, the nightclub proved a hit with soldiers anxious to remove the ravages of war from their psyche and ready to party and return home.
Years later, back in New York, Sid was busy establishing himself as an agent for the General Artists Corporation (G.A.C.). It was one of the largest talent agencies in the world handling all the top people in show business. When Bernstein joined G.A.C. he already had acquired a lot of experience producing shows, in New York and elsewhere, at the Paramount, the Palace, the Apollo, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the comeback tour for Judy Garland. Eventually he became the "responsible" agent for Tony Bennett, seeing to his specific individual career needs. Bennett, at this time, had a modicum of success on television and on record yet felt his career was somewhat stifled. After being with the agency for a time, Sid was also struggling with some career decisions of his own. He had success with and enjoyed his role, in the past, as the producer and promoter of acts and events big and small. He knew, as a talent agent, it was a legal and ethical conflict of interest to also engage in promotion, too. Nevertheless he proposed the idea to Bennett of bolstering his popularity and career by performing at Carnegie Hall. Tony loved it and Sid, working incognito, handled all the arrangements, booked the hall and put on the show. This was a watershed moment for Tony, as he had never played the great venue. Bennett's career, however, skyrocketed from that point placing him forever among our most beloved and prized interpreters of American song. "Tony was a real humanitarian. He once did a show for me for nothing, just to say thanks for the break at Carnegie Hall," says Sid.
While Bernstein has helped so many in show business, he is perhaps best known for bringing the Beatles to Carnegie Hall and, later, Shea Stadium. "I'm a hunch player, you see," states Sid modestly. "I was just glad to get this group I had been reading about for months. It took eight months after I booked them for there to be any airplay of their records on the radio. I had to convince Carnegie Hall and my financial backers to take a chance on this then-unknown group. I had been reading about their progress in the European papers and was fascinated with the hysteria that surrounded them. I was the first to promote the Beatles in the States and Ed Sullivan called me first about them before he ever booked them on his television show."
The book Not Just the Beatles, told by Bernstein and written by friend Arthur Aaron, has been recently released and is an account of these and so many other stories presented by a most remarkable and masterful storyteller.
"My secret to success is that I've always loved good music and people," summarizes Sid. "The players in the promotion business today are, by and large, not in it for the art anymore. It's all about how many bucks can you make on a concert. That's permissible. I mean we are in a capitalistic society. But I feel a lot of the art thing is lost. It shouldn't just be about money. It should be about loving what you do."
The book Not Just the Beatles is available in paperback through Barnes & Noble, and Bloomingdale's and on the web at amazon.com and www.notjustthebeatles.com.
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