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Sid Bernstein, the veteran entertainment impresario who helped usher in pop music’s British Invasion by bringing The Beatles to New York City for history-making concerts at Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium, has died. He was 95.
Bernstein, who also organized shows for Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, ABBA, Jimi Hendrix and countless other acts, died Wednesday of natural causes in New York, his longtime friend and publicist Merle Frimark announced.
Bernstein couldn’t get his agency interested in The Beatles, so he handled the job himself and paid the group $6,500 to come over from England to play two shows at Carnegie Hall (both on Feb. 12, 1964). Three days earlier, the Fab Four had performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on Broadway.
On Aug. 15, 1965, Bernstein got The Beatles back in New York to play before 55,000 screaming fans at Shea Stadium.
“I’m a hunch player, you see,” Bernstein once said. “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.”
Bernstein was born on Aug. 12, 1918, in New York City, the only son of Russian immigrants, and raised in the Bronx. At 13, he would head to Manhattan to go to the movies and take in stage and vaudeville shows.
While in high school, Bernstein heard a beautiful voice singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at an assembly in the school auditorium and got the singer an audition for the popular radio program Major Bowes Amateur Hour.
Later, while serving as part of the U.S. Army’s 602nd Triple A Gun Battalion during World War II, Bernstein established a G.I. nightclub for the troops, requisitioning tables, chairs and furnishings and hiring waitresses and cooks.
After the war, Bernstein landed a job as an agent for General Artists Corp., then one of the largest talent agencies in the world. He produced shows at the Paramount, the Palace, the Apollo and the Newport Jazz Festival and guided a comeback tour for Garland.
Bernstein became the agent responsible for Bennett and handled the singer’s breakthrough performance at Carnegie Hall on June 9, 1962. (Arthur Penn and Gene Saks directed the show, which came months after Bennett released his version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”)
“Tony was a real humanitarian. He once did a show for me for nothing, just to say thanks for the break at Carnegie Hall,” Bernstein recalled.
During The Beatles’ Shea concert, Bernstein had the phrase “The Rascals Are Coming!” displayed on the scoreboard. He worked with that group for five years, helping them rise from obscurity.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of the loss of a great music legend, our former manager, and friend, Sid Bernstein,” The Rascals, who are on tour with their theatrical production Once Upon a Dream, said in a statement. “We are forever indebted to Sid for his love and dedication to The Rascals and for being the first to believe in us. He will remain in our hearts and his legacy will live on in the music he helped bring to our fans.”
In 1964, he brought many Israeli singers to the U.S. for their first major concerts, among them Shoshana Damari, Shaike Ophir and Yaffa Yarkoni, who appeared at Carnegie Hall a year after The Beatles.
Bernstein organized concerts for Laura Branigan and Sly & the Family Stone and was an early backer of ABBA, setting up the Swedish group’s first U.S. appearances.
Bernstein’s exploits are chronicled in the books Not Just the Beatles and It’s Sid Bernstein Calling … The Promoter Who Brought the Beatles to America.
“My secret to success is that I’ve always loved good music and people,” Bernstein said. “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.”
A recent, unreleased documentary, Sid Bernstein Presents, includes interviews with such luminaries as Tito Puente, Lenny Kravitz, Shirley MacLaine, Steven Van Zandt, the Moody Blues, Paul Anka, Dick Clark, Jerry Vale, Phoebe Snow, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, comedians Red Buttons and Pat Cooper and Ahmet Ertegun.
At age 93, he recorded and released a CD, Sid Bernstein Presents, along with singer, producer and composer Deirdre Broderick.
Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Geraldine; children Adam, Beau, Dylan, Casey, Denise and Etienne; and six grandchildren.
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Jamie Lee Curtis