Midweek Music Moment: The Concert for Bangladesh

We didn’t realize it at the time but one of them there paradigm shifts occurred in music on August 1, 1971. That afternoon and evening, more than two dozen famous and not so famous musicians performed at two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. Gathered by George Harrison, the performances were benefit concerts for the newly established independent nation of Bangladesh, whose people were suffering the effects of war and starvation. Harrison had been motivated to act by his close friend, Ravi Shankar, a Bengali

ConcertforbangladeshmovieposterBenefit concerts were nothing new. After all, folk musicians had performed at benefits for one cause or another for decades and benefit performances undoubtedly stretched back several hundred years. But this was different. As its permanent website notes, the Concert for Bangladesh was “the first benefit concert of its kind in that it brought together an extraordinary assemblage of major artists collaborating for a common humanitarian cause – setting the precedent that music could be used to serve a higher cause.”

Certainly, no one can say with without this concert events like No Nukes, Live Aid or Farm Aid would never have occurred. But Harrison’s approach helped create fundraising synergy. Rather than rely only on proceeds of ticket sales, the concert produced not only a three-LP box set — delayed in part because of the record companies of the various artists — but a movie that had worldwide release. As a result, not only did the two performances provide about $243,000 to UNICEF, the UN organization devoted to providing humanitarian relief to children affected by natural and man-made disasters, sales of the movie and album ultimately generated more than $15 million.

Yet at the core of it all is the music. The quality may be reflected in the fact the box set not only won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, it reached number 2 on the U.S. music charts and number 1 on the U.K. charts. Not bad for a three-LP set — although Harrison took the three-LP All Things Must Pass to number one worldwide early in 1971. There are also certain moments that make the shows historic, some of which the general public never knew at the time.

What we did know was this was the first time Bob Dylan had performed in concert in two years. What we didn’t know is that Harrison wasn’t sure until moments before introducing him whether Dylan would show up. We knew Eric Clapton dueted with Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the song on the Beatles’ so-called White Album on which Clapton played lead guitar. And while simply listening to the song wouldn’t reveal it, actually seeing Clapton on film indicated he was out of it. What we didn’t know is that Clapton’s drug problems kept him from all the rehearsals and, as he writes in his autobiography, he has only “a vague memory” of playing the show and “wasn’t really there.”

That aside, there’s plenty to love on the album and film. Harrison picked a top-notch selection of his own music, blending some of my favorites from All Things Must Pass to his best known songs with the Beatles. There’s Leon Russell singing a chorus of Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” that helps uncover the song’s blues roots. There’s “Bangla Desh,” the song Harrison released just before the concert and which closed both performances. On film, there’s s Billy Preston so taken up in “That’s The Way God Planned It” that he leaves his keyboards to dance front stage. There’s the opportunity to watch Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner play drums side by side (and to also see highly regarded but rarely seen bass player Klaus Voorman). These are just a few of the highlights from what was unquestionably a historic day.

By the way, ticket stubs for “Harrison & Friends” on the middle of the five seating levels at MSG sold for $6.50 and $5.50 at the time. Those two stubs, each less than four inches square, went on auction this week. The starting bid? $200.

My friend came to me
With sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies

Although I couldn’t feel the pain
I knew I had to try
Now I’m asking all of you
To help us save some lives

George Harrison, “Bangla Desh”

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