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Remembering my friend Sid Bernstein

 
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Sid Bernstein and James Janoff at dinner in New York City.

You meet a Sid Bernstein once in a lifetime, if you are lucky.

Toward the end of his funeral last Friday, a service that included much laughter, music, and a standing ovation mixed in with the tears, the rabbi said, “This has not been your typical funeral.”

And how could it be?

Sid, who died at 95, the man who brought the Beatles and so much more British music to America, had touched the souls and hearts of so many.

Stars and music industry moguls were at the funeral, but so was the pizza guy, the doorman, and so many regular people, who saw Sid as so more than just a part of music history. He related to everyone — and I mean everyone. Sid was happy to lend an ear to anyone who had a story, and if you brought Danish, he liked you even more.

One of the speakers at the funeral joked that he recognized some con artists in the audience. Even they came to say goodbye. Sid would have been the first to say that was fine. Let everyone come. Let it be a party.

Sid was always looking for the next big act. No matter where you went with him, he would give out calling cards promoting “his next big star.” A family friend told the crowd: “I stopped in the men’s room earlier and I fully expected to find a Sid Bernstein Presents card on the shelf.”

Sid and I saw Paul McCartney at Citi Field. Being with him, you could easily forget who the star was. Everyone came up to Sid, asking to take a picture or to shake his hand. He worked a crowd like a politician looking for votes. “I still have the magic, Jamie,” he would say. “We’re gonna make it real big again. Just wait and watch.”

Ed Koch might seem like the consummate New Yorker, but I think it was Sid Bernstein. He knew New York like no one I’ve ever met. Drive with him, and he would point out where he first met Barbra Streisand, where he rallied with Bill Bradley for racial equality, and more important, where you could find the best egg cream on the Upper West Side between 60th and 79th streets. No matter where we drove, he had a story. And well into his 90s, his memory was near perfect.

Sid talked to everyone, looked you straight in the eye, shook your hand, and might have even touched your cheek. You met Sid once, and you became part of his tribe.

So many memories with Sid involve food. We ate pizza in Harlem, perogies in the Village. “Did I mention I produced John Lennon across from this Polish restaurant?” he would remind me. Then there was the time when Sid asked me if I loved Coney Island. “Let’s take a ride, Jamie,” he said. It was 10 p.m. and I was tired and had to work the next day. Then I realized that the guy next to me was in his 90s and was wide awake. “What is wrong with this picture?” I asked myself. Drive on, Jamie.

We met in Englewood four years ago, at a Fab Faux Beatles concert. Bassist Will Lee announced that he was in the audience and I jumped at the chance to say hello and thank him for his rich history and achievement.

From that conversation came a wonderful cover story by Joey Leichman that appeared here in 2009. “If your photographer is coming from Jersey, can you ask him to stop at Michelle’s Bakery in Fort Lee and bring some eclairs?” he said. Man, did Sid know his desserts.

Sid would tell me how much that story helped him and how many people told him they read it. “I’m back, Jamie,” he said. “It’s a new day, and we have work to do.”

That story also led to our wonderful friendship. We talked often. Sid had the most beautiful voice and infectious laugh. Talking to Sid made you a better person. He would set you straight, and although he was unlicensed, he was cheaper and more astute then the most schooled therapist in New York.

Sid loved being Jewish and fought adamantly against anti-Semitism. He hated racial inequality. He promoted James Brown and Tito Puente early on, because they deserved the chance. Brown was quoted as saying that Sid was the only mainstream impresario booking black singers in the 60s.

Sid was a diehard liberal. We would drive past the armory in Teaneck, and he would say “I lost so many good friends for nothing.” He would remind me of his hearing loss, a result of operating machine guns on the Belgian-German front during World War II. He recalled shooting down a plane, but his captain told him that the pilot escaped. He was grateful for that — he feared that otherwise the memory would haunt him for the rest of his life..

Sid was adopted and spoke often of his love for his parents. As history will tell, he often chose them over his career. Talk to any of Sid’s six children, their children, or Gerry, his wife of 50 years. They will tell you — his love of family came before anything.

“I’ve met all the stars,” he would tell me, “but nothing I have done in my career compares to hearing my grandson on the phone calling me dada.”

So, let’s talk Beatles. If Sid had never done another thing in his life but discover these lads, everyone would clearly understand his early retirement. Yes, Sid was the man who hit pay dirt. He would be the first to tell you how lucky he was. He had the sechel to be reading the British newspapers and booked them without ever hearing their music.

Sid called himself a hunch player. Quite a hunch, Mr. Bernstein. The Fab Four would play Carnegie Hall and the Ed Sullivan show the same week.

The music world would never be the same.

Then came Shea Stadium. And so it goes. Sid promoted the careers of so many artists, including the Rascals, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Moody Blues. He helped Judy Garland and Tony Bennett revive their careers. Even Jimi Hendrix, who appeared at Bernstein’s Madison Square Garden benefit Winter Festival for Peace.

“Sure I remember Jimi,” Sid smiled. “He always took my parking space.”

And then there were his mistakes. So many mistakes. Sid passed on managing Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, and others. There were many collaborations with other promoters that never happened, but should have.

They are all outlined in Arthur Aaron’s wonderful book, “It’s Sid Bernstein Calling.”

Then there were the many hangers-on, who hoped that Sid would get them to meet Paul McCartney. I always thought that was strange; Sid never understood groupies, but he loved the attention.

Sid had no regrets. To him, there were twists and turns. “Life is not perfect,” he would say. “We move on. It’s a new day, and you try to do better.”

To his dying day, Sid Bernstein tried to do better.

As the owner of a famous pizzeria once told me, “Sid’s my Mother Theresa. That smile. The joy that man brings. Everyone here loves him.

“I’ve not met another like him in my lifetime.”

 
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Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a man of intense charisma, who used the music he created and played and sang to mesmerizing effect, at times bringing people back to the Judaism they had never known before they left it. It is not an overstatement to say that his music has reinvigorated religious services across the religious spectrum; much of the joyous life that exists in some parts of the liberal world can be traced back to him. His songs and niggunim are so well known that many of us think they must be folk melodies with age-old roots, not 20th-century composed works.

 
 
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