Just a year ago I was enjoying a Saturday afternoon by the boat pond in Central Park, sharing a sunflower umbrella with a new friend. We held hands and swayed gently against the summer breeze as the Guitar Man of Central Park strummed his version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The friend was Sid Bernstein.
I remember the feel of his ninety-four year old hand around mine, his broad smile that stretched so far across his face at the familiar tune I thought his lips might reach his ears. Sid sat regally under his umbrella in a wheelchair and fans waited quietly nearby for him to sign a guitar, a poster anything. After all, this was the man who brought the Beatles to America – to Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium.
As we hummed and spoke the words to “Imagine”, and watched a happy crowd enjoy the free show by the water my heart sensed my location, the historical feel of the moment and what could only be called, a little soft Manhattan magic wafting in the air.
We were just steps away from Strawberry Fields and The Dakota where John Lennon lost his life to a gunman’s bullet. We were across the park from the building where as a child I’d often run into John’s sons Julian and Sean departing for a day out.
We were nowhere and everywhere in the middle of the song “Imagine” that changed a generation, in a city that hosted The British Invasion, with the man who made it all happen in 1965. What had started as an interview in his home, surrounded by family and friends grew briefly to an appreciation and soon hours would pass in the park or at a performance holding hands in a more peaceful place than one we shared as members of two different generations of New Yorkers.
You see, we had made a special connection over war and unforeseen death. He had fought in it and I had covered it. Sid explained at different times that his mission to bring The Beatles to America was not just about business, he saw their music, their energy would herald in a time for healing, healing after World War II and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“I remember running across the street when the word got in that Kennedy got shot.” He told me. “I’m not a religious man, I had mixed emotions. The emotions I felt. I ran across the street to St. Patrick’s. I sat down and I took the water and I prayed for Kennedy.”
May you too rest in peace Sid Bernstein. Thank you for bringing joy to the rest of us. I have left his interview with New York Natives vastly unedited, as it is alive with memories of a big life in its raw form.
NYN: How did you first discover the Beatles?
Sid: A professor at the New School mentioned reading the foreign newspapers. I happened to be the only guy who paid attention to what he said. My professor said to the group, ‘you should read a foreign newspaper a week for a broader education’.
So, I was reading the foreign newspapers.
I spent a lot of time as a soldier in England. When I came home, I won’t tell ya because this is too sad, when I came home… When I came home, it was during D-Day. I went into D-Day, I saw four of my friends go down. I made it. I was lucky. War. I hate shooting. I hate weapons. I just hate the sight of it. Instead of flowers, we plant bullets. I came home becoming an absolute pacifist. I had been one before. I couldn’t think of the word “killing” or “shooting at” and I did plenty of that too.
One of the papers talked about three young kids making it in their native town, Liverpool. And I read how they went from Liverpool, some of the other towns were picking them up, Manchester, other cities were picking them up. And they became a rage in each city and then they went to Germany, you know, that part was started too. And they created pandemonium even in Germany.
Now I had been a music man for quite a while. And I read, as they went from city to city, I said, I gotta bring those guys here, home. So instead of bringing home a lost arm, or a lost foot, I was lucky.
I came home wanting so much to find those five guys that I’d been reading about in Liverpool and Manchester. And I called their manager’s home. His name – Brian Epstein. His mother answered the phone. Some of this you’ve already followed, in your history. I called his home. A very intellectual, cultured voice answered the phone and said, “Can I help you?” and I said, I’m looking for Brian Epstein. She says, “Where are you calling from?” I said, from New York, actually, the Bronx. I always showed off about the Bronx. Actually, I was brought up in Harlem, but I want to give this to you word for word, as I totally remember it.
Mrs. Epstein says, “What was your name again sir? Let me call my son.” He was still living at home. He was just starting to make it. He owned a little record shop in his father’s furniture store. She yelled up the stairs, “Brian? Brian?” That meant he was living upstairs. She shouted a little louder, “Brian! There’s a gentleman here wants to speak to you. He came running down. He’s a very cultured, conservative guy. He wanted to be an actor, I think, in his early years. [I heard him] on the steps coming down. He was home. His mother said, the gentleman’s in the next room, Brian.
[I called] him several times before we really got into business. He was cultured, I was not. I went to James Monroe High School, and it took a while for me to get out of there. I was not cultured. I was a bum from Tremont Avenue and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.
I’m giving you this story as I’ve never given it before I think.
To me, that was like the capitol of the world. When Epstein said, ‘you wanna bring my boys to Carnegie Hall?’ I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Epstein!’ [He said] ‘wait til I tell the boys at Isos. Isos was the local business, a wonderful restaurant where all the show business people in that area came to.
He knew about Carnegie Hall. To me, that was like the capitol of the world. He says ‘you wanna tell my boys you’re gonna bring them to Carnegie Hall? They never heard of it!’… Wait til I tell the guys at Isos that I’m bringing my boys to Carnegie Hall.’
They’d read about it, but none of these bums had ever been there.
He [Brian Epstein] said, ‘nobody is gonna understand about Carnegie Hall.’
I used to book some acts on the Ed Sullivan show.
So they came. They went first to the Ed Sullivan show because they needed exposure before we could get them into Carnegie Hall. So now they’re a huge sensation.
NYN: Do you remember what the Beatle’s reaction was the first time they came to New York?
Sid: I’m up in their dressing room. Brian had already told the police people to let me up. There’s already a mob waiting. I went up the elevator and they said, ‘What’s your name sir?’ and I said, ‘Sid Bernstein.’ I go up. I stop at Brian’s room. He says, ‘the boys would love to meet you, let’s go into their room’. He opens up the door, and there’s these four young kids. We have sons, and they remind me of sons at their age. They’re looking out there, the shades up on the window. And they looked at me when Brian brought me in, and introduced me to the four guys, and their road manager was there. The shades were up and as they met me they said, ‘What a crazy town you live in!’ It was probably Ringo, the one that I liked the least.
NYN: Who did you like the most?
Sid: The one that we lost. [John].
NYN: When you recorded your own album, you chose ‘Imagine’ to be the first song. You’ve talked a lot about your passion for peace, why did you choose ‘Imagine’ to be the first song on your album?
Sid: ‘Imagine’ expresses my inside feeling.
NYN: Sid do you remember last week for your birthday we were talking in Central Park. You said your dad used to take you to the park when you were a little boy.
Sid: When I was a little kid, we lived not far, on the east side of Central Park. My father, an incredible, wonderful father. I wanted to tell you, I was adopted. I had the greatest parents in the world. My grandmother, whose room I shared, she was here when I came back. All she said was two words, ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’. My mother, they adopted me, my mother had lost one leg when she arrived from Europe and lived in a mixed apartment building over on the east side. She fell. My neighbors, they were mostly people of color, black people. They brought her… there was no refrigeration… they brought up kegs of ice. They brought up a can of milk.
My mother lost one leg. They couldn’t adopt anybody. So they found me. Or as my wife sometimes, when asked to say something about me says, that I came here for fame and fortune, which she did out of California, but look what I wound up with. But we didn’t do bad. How many grandchildren? Six, and more on the way. All boys. Someday, because my family’s so prolific, there’ll be a girl.
It’s a great story. Because when I’m asked by strangers, ‘can I have your autograph’ or when people who have read it, meet me [they say], ‘I could not put your book down’. That – I’m proud of. The book is up for a movie of my life. There are several people interested in the book. The book is out in hard cover.
NYN: What music do you like to listen to now?
Sid: I’ll tell you, I don’t listen to much. Now, I’m practically illiterate. I don’t read much now because my eyes went bad. But, what I do now is I found suckers like you who will now go buy the book, who will now go see the movie.
NYN: Who do you want to play you in the movie?
Sid: I used to answer that question, but I no longer do that, Brad Pitt. Actually, and it would be the director who chooses that person, I’d really like it to be Al Pacino. I think he’s the greatest actor.
Featured Image Courtesy of Camilla Webster