Eavesdropping

A Lucky Long-Distance Call to ‘The Fifth Beatle’

Broadway producer Vivek Tiwary tells a show-business tale about Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and a fateful phone call that changed music

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Vivek J. Tiwary has made it

Vivek Tiwary produced the Broadway hits “A Raisin in the Sun,” “American Idiot,” and a forthcoming musical based on Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.”  But his latest production is a graphic novel set far from the stage lights of NYC. “The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story” tells the tale of the Liverpudlian who helped discover and promote The Beatles, while struggling against discrimination and addiction.

The story Tiwary shares here isn’t in the book. It tells the tale of a phone conversation that changed rock n roll history… and almost never happened.

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Hi, I’m Vivek Tiwary, and I’m the author of the new graphic novel, “The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story.

I’m here to tell you how The Beatles almost didn’t make it to the United States – and the two nice Jewish boys who saved them…

So, it’s an average day for Brian Epstein in the 1960s. He starts his day working in his family’s furniture store.  In the record section of the furniture store – because in those days, people came to furniture stores to buy record players because they were large pieces of furniture – putting in his hours there. Then taking some time off to promote The Beatles, who he had recently gotten signed after every single label in the industry passed on them.

But they had reached a bit of a standstill, and Brian’s new ambition for them was to bring them over to the United States.  Which was unheard of — a British band had never made an impact in the United States before.  But he believed that The Beatles would be bigger than Elvis. A world-wide sensation.

These days were tough for Brian. He was gay when it was literally against the law to be homosexual . He was Jewish when anti-Semitism was rampant in the country. I know it might sound strange from a modern perspective, but Jewish people just did not work in the music industry. The music industry was run by people like Sir Lou Grade, and old white Knights of the British Empire. So here’s this gay, Jewish man, running around Liverpool saying “I found a local band, and they’re gonna be bigger than Elvis!” It was rather ludicrous. People laughed at him, and thought he was crazy, and that people like him didn’t enter fields like that.

Beatles - Liverpool - for web
Brian Epstein is not satisfied with his hometown. (Illustration from “The Fifth Beatle.” Courtesy the author.)

So he would come home relatively dejected and have dinner with his family. He was living at home with his mother and father and younger brother. Brain Epstein was in his twenties then, so he was a very young man.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, there was another young Jewish man in New York City, also hustling his way around the music industry, and this was Sid Bernstein. Sid caught wind of The Beatles and saw in them the same thing that Brian did.  And thought “This might be my big break if I can bring this band over to the United States.”  So Sid tracked down a phone number and called.

The person who picked up the phone was Brian’s mother, Malka Epstein. “Malka” is Hebrew for “Queen,” and she went by the nickname “Queenie.”

And Sid said,” Hi, you don’t know me, my name is Sid Bernstein, I’m calling from New York City and I’d like to bring your son’s band over to the United States.”

Here’s the thing: People in Liverpool, colloquially known as “scousers,” are very well known for mastering the art of “taking the piss,” as they say, which basically means being pranksters. So, Queenie was certain that this phone call was a prank!

Sid quickly realized who he was talking to and said to himself, “I know how to charm a Jewish mother.”  So he answered her questions quite humbly and respectfully. But nevertheless, she just didn’t believe that someone from New York City was calling, by the name of Sid Bernstein, and was interested in bringing her son’s local band over to the United States.

But finally she decided, “You know what? I still might not believe you, but you sound like a nice Jewish boy.  So I’ll put you on the phone with Brian.”

So as the result of one feisty but supportive Jewish mother, a year later the world got it’s first outdoor stadium concert in The Beatles at Shea Stadium.  Promoted by Sid Bernstein and arranged by Brian Epstein.