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Remembering Sid Bernstein: Beatles Booker, Benefit Concert Pioneer, Champion for Peace

Among the late promoter's many credits were two little-known concerts featuring Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970. The author attended both shows.

Sid Bernstein Headshot - P 2013
Bill Bernstein

The passing of concert impresario Sid Bernstein on Thursday got me thinking about how he affected my life. Everyone knows Bernstein brought the Beatles to America, first at Carnegie Hall in 1964 and then at Shea Stadium in 1965. He also booked the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Moody Blues and other groups to play in the U.S., and helped discover and manage the Young Rascals.

But to me, Sid Bernstein’s biggest claim to fame is two concerts he produced in 1970: the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden and the Summer Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium. I attended both shows, which were fundraisers for the anti-war movement co-produced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary and Phil Friedman. They were among the first rock benefit concerts, followed by 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh and many others over the years.

“Peace was important to me because I’d seen the ugliness of war in Europe, having served in England, Germany and Belgium,” Bernstein explained in the documentary Sid Bernstein Presents. “It was people killing people. That’s why I got involved in the peace movement.”

There is very little documentation of these shows available on the web. A flyer for the Winter Festival for Peace on Jan. 28, 1970 says, “All proceeds to Moratorium Fund.” Ticket prices ranged from $4 to $7.50.

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The show’s headliner was Jimi Hendrix and His Band of Gypsys (he died in September of that year). A few months earlier, Hendrix had left The Experience in favor of a funkier outfit featuring Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums.

The set began with “Who Knows.” After a ten-minute jam, the band took a brief break, then veered into “Earth Blues,” which featured a blistering guitar solo. The song faded out and Hendrix wandered off stage. “It seems as though we’re not quite getting it together, so just give us a little more time because it has been hard,” one of the band members told the anxious crowd. “Just bear with us for a few minutes and we’ll try to get something together … Like I said we’re having trouble. I don’t know what is the matter. Jimi wants to go down and so, like I said, if you can bear with us, if you can understand where the whole thing is at, we can try something later.”

And with that, after 23 minutes, Hendrix and His Band of Gypsys exited the stage. They never came back. Years later it would be revealed that Hendrix was having a bad acid trip. Fortunately, this didn’t ruin the concert, which also featured performances by Peter Paul & Mary, the Rascals, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Harry Belafonte, the cast of Hair, Dave Brubeck with McHenry Boatwright and Mother Earth.

But for anyone who was there, like myself, that night and show will always be remembered for Jimi Hendrix’s abbreviated performance. I’d long thought it was the crowd who kept calling for his Experience hits like “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” that bummed him out. I happened to love Hendrix’s new direction; others apparently felt otherwise. 

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The Summer Festival for Peace is also best remembered for a performance by a rock legend that would also soon pass away, Janis Joplin. Just days before the show on Aug. 6, 1970, Joplin, who was in New York promoting her new band, decided she would join her original group, Big Brother & the Holding Company, who were scheduled to perform at the peace concert.

Whereas Madison Square Garden was sold out for the Winter Festival, the Summer Festival had a relatively light turnout of about 20,000 people (capacity was 55,000). In a review for the Village Voice, writer Don Heckman speculated, “I suppose the problem was less one of finding an appropriate stadium than of finding one soon enough so that the program could be publicized sufficiently to draw a good-sized audience.” Perhaps it wasn’t, but my friends and I heard about it and bought tickets that cost probably $10.

I like to tell people that the Summer Festival for Peace was my Woodstock. The summer before, I was too young and unaware to go to the Woodstock Art & Music Festival in Bethel, New York. But nearly a year later, still just 15, I had become a concertgoer, anti-war supporter and pot smoker. With its amazing lineup, this was a show I wasn’t going to miss.

Doors opened at 9 a.m. and at 10 we were greeted by John Sebastian, the show’s MC and first performer. Sebastian, like many others on the bill, had received a publicity jolt from playing Woodstock and appearing in the movie. Another Woodstock veteran, Richie Havens, shook the stadium as everyone danced furiously to his anthem, “Freedom.” Here’s the lineup, as best as I can reconstruct it, in alphabetical order:

Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Miles Davis, Rick Derringer, Richie Havens, Herbie Hancock, James Gang, Al Kooper, Pacific Gas & Electric, Tom Paxton, Poco, Sha-Na-Na, Paul Simon, Steppenwolf, Ten Wheel Drive, the Rascals, the Turtles, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Winter, Peter Yarrow and the original cast of Hair.

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“Over a 12-hour span it can be difficult to keep one's critical faculties tuned while stumbling confusedly around Shea Stadium, from the upstairs press facilities to the third base dugout to home plate to the performers' dressing rooms,” Heckman wrote about the show. “No matter. Everyone I saw performed at least as well as I've ever heard them, and some overreached even their best efforts. Programs like this do that to performers. The proximity of other major talents, the worthiness of the cause, the general feeling of togetherness -- all these seem to come together to help the artists get it on, and they do.”

A fan posting at loge13.com, who attended the show, recalls the Big Brother and Janis set as follows: “Ball and Chain,” “Summertime,” “Turtle Blues” and “Piece of My Heart” -- and adds, “All while consuming a bottle of Southern Comfort.”

A photographer who shot backstage, Ken Davidoff, reminisces at his site oldrockphoto.com: “The first person I saw when I entered the dressing room was Janis Joplin. I walked up to her and re-introduced myself from the Palm Beach Pop Festival. Now you have to remember this was 1970 -- I am not going to lie, I was a pot smoker back then, so I said to Janis, ‘Would you like to smoke a joint?’ ‘No,’ she replied, ‘that stuff just makes me crazy’ and with that remark she pulls out a brown paper bag with a bottle. At that moment Johnny Winter entered the dressing room and shortly after the bottle was gone. This was to be one of Janis's last performances, and it was a reunion with her band, Big Brother and The Holding Co. She passed away just two months later.”

The show wrapped at 11 p.m. with the final three performance slots taken by Big Brother with Janis, Steppenwolf and Creedence. I don’t remember what song closed the concert, but I know we “choogled” right out of the building well aware that we’d seen one of the great shows of the era. Turns out it was the the greatest show of the era for many of us who missed Woodstock.

I have this to thank Sid Bernstein for. And for bringing the Beatles to America. I didn’t see the Beatles at Shea in 1965 (I was 11), but five years later he somehow topped that feat, even though few people know about it to this day.

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