Rock concert pioneer riffs on British Invasion years

Sid Bernstein, who promoted The Beatles’ and The Rolling Stones’ first gigs in America, recounted some of his experiences for a College audience on April 14. (Tim Lee).

Sid Bernstein, a cheerful, soft-spoken man in his early 90s, was a bit taken aback upon taking the microphone in the Library Auditorium on April 14.

Why? He was escorted to the stage and showered with affection, words of gratitude for his appearance and, to his delight, a box of homemade cookies. He was appearing to discuss his history as a “rock promoter” — a title he has worn well during his multiple decades in the music industry.

Introduced by David Venturo, professor of English, Bernstein listened as his accomplishments were lauded and his invaluable place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll was carved out. His audience sat in reverent, rapt attention to the man who brought the British Invasion to the United States.

“Sid is a towering presence in the music industry,” Venturo said. “He’s best known for his work with The Beatles. He wanted The Beatles to come to America before anyone else did … but The Beatles really only mark one chapter in the remarkable musical life of Sid Bernstein.”

Venturo went on to mention a handful of the artists with whom Bernstein has worked — among them, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Elvis.

So why was Bernstein, whose name had just been thoroughly extolled, bestowed with the admiration of an entire room and given baked goods, not happy?

“You’ve said so much about me, I have nothing more to say,” Bernstein said. “Would it be alright if I leave? I would like to see my grandchildren tomorrow morning.”

But then he cracked a warm smile, the audience laughed and his presentation began.

Bernstein continued to provide humorous commentary throughout his hour-long presentation, during which he discussed the lighter aspects of working for dozens of years as a music promoter. He fielded questions from the audience and spoke extensively about the concerts for which he is best known — those of The Beatles.

“When I made the deal to have The Beatles perform in this country, I had never heard them perform. I was in the war. The War of 1812,” Bernstein said, eyes twinkling. “I’m older than I look.”

All jokes aside, Bernstein told how he had read about the Beatles in a British newspaper, The Guardian.

“I read about four guys creating some excitement in their native city of Liverpool. I read the story about four guys, whose music I’d never heard, called The Beatles. The third or fourth time there was one story, which showed them with a lot of hair. They were referred to as the mop-tops,” he said.

Bernstein, who was working as an “artist promoter” in a ballroom in New York City, was stirred by the hype the four mop-tops had generated in the U.K. He decided he wanted to bring them to the U.S.

Bernstein grabbed a friend, hopped on a plane and ventured into the land of the Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. In fact, he made a point to see them.

“I had seen Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. I decided I should call (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein. So I called Brian Epstein. I said, ‘I’ve been reading about your guys,’” Bernstein said.

From that encounter sprang the first concert — a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall on February 12, 1964.

“It was amazing,” Bernstein said. “Carnegie Hall had never seen anything like this.”

It was after this concert, and another held subsequently in an attempt to pacify the hordes of fans in a frenzy to see The Beatles, that Beatlemania truly struck America. No one saw the tide of support for the four British singers rising any higher — that is, except Bernstein. He wanted to get them again. And this time, he wanted it bigger and better.

Originally, he planned for another Carnegie Hall performance. Then he had a better idea.

“There was a whole change in the world of music … I called Brian and I said, ‘I want them to play Shea Stadium,’” Bernstein said.

According to the promoter, Epstein was skeptical. The New York City stadium seated over 50,000.

But Bernstein was confident. He struck up a deal with Epstein — the music promoter would pay the manager, out of pocket, $10 for every unsold seat.

The deal proved to be unnecessary.

The Beatles went on to play Shea Stadium, the former home of the New York Mets, before a sold-out crowd on August 15, 1965. It became their best-known American performance.

Bernstein has left an indelible imprint on the history of rock ‘n’ roll in this country. It is something the modest man acknowledged with gratitude, and with a sparkle of good humor.

“I didn’t write the books. I didn’t write the songs. But I touched those guys. Carnegie Hall, Shea Stadium, 1965,” he said. “I have had such a good life. And I have met so many good people — like (the person who) made these cookies. I thank you.”