GEORGE HARRISON and FRIENDS – ” The Concert For Bangladesh ” Released on December 20th, 1971

Posted: December 22, 2020 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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It started with a plea from one friend to another. George Harrison had been close to the legendary Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar since the mid-’60s, when the Beatle first sought an expert to teach him to play the multi-stringed Indian sitar. Ravi Shankar, older than Harrison by some 22 years and the acknowledged world master of the instrument, was from Bangladesh (previously known as East Pakistan) in the South Asian region of Bengal. At the time, in 1971, Harrison’s website states, “The country was ravaged by floods, famine and civil war, which left 10 million people mostly women and children fleeing their homes.” Feeling distraught and wanting to help, Shankar met with Harrison and asked if he might be able to draw attention to the crisis, and possibly use his fame to do something to raise some funds for aid. “Yes,” Harrison told him, “I think I’ll be able to do something.”

In April of 1971, Harrison went to work recruiting friends for a one-time-only concert; by June he had already received commitments from several of the biggest names on rock. He also arranged for a film and recording to be made of the event, the proceeds of which would go toward the cause. The concert date was set for August 1st, 1971, two shows .The shows were held at 2:30 and 8:00 pm(afternoon and evening) to take place at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Not only would The Concert for Bangladesh be Harrison’s first major live appearance since the Beatles quit touring five years earlier, it would go down as one of the greatest evenings of classic rock in history. The event was the first-ever benefit of such a magnitude, and featured a supergroup of performers that included Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger. In addition, Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan – both of whom had ancestral roots in Bangladesh – performed an opening set of Indian classical music. The concerts were attended by a total of 40,000 people, and the initial gate receipts raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief, which was administered by UNICEF. After collecting the musicians easily, Harrison found it extremely difficult to get the recording industry to release the rights for performers to share the stage, and millions of dollars raised from the album and film were tied up in IRS tax escrow accounts for years, but the Concert for Bangladesh is recognised as a highly successful and influential humanitarian aid project.

Shankar’s original hope was to raise $25,000 through a benefit concert of his own, With Harrison’s commitment, and the record and film outlets available to him through the Beatles’ Apple Corps organisation, the idea soon grew to become a star-studded musical event, mixing Western rock with Indian classical music.

According to Chris O’Dell, a music-business administrator and former Apple employee, Harrison got off the phone with Shankar once the concept had been finalised, and started enthusing with his wife, Pattie Boyd, and herself about possible performers. Ringo Starr, Lennon, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Voormann, Billy Preston and Badfinger were all mentioned during this initial brainstorming. The Concert For Bangladesh happened because of my relationship with Ravi … I said, “If you want me to be involved, I think I’d better be really involved,” so I started recruiting all these people.  O’Dell set about contacting local musicians from the Harrisons’ rented house in Nichols Canyon, as Harrison took the long-distance calls, hoping more than anything to secure Bob Dylan’s participation

Almost all of Harrison’s first-choice names signed on immediately, while a day spent boating with Memphis musician Don Nix resulted in the latter agreeing to organise a group of backing singers. The Sunday, was the only day that Madison Square Garden was available at such short notice. By the first week of July Harrison was in a Los Angeles studio recording his purpose-written song, “Bangla Desh”, with co-producer Phil Spector. The song’s opening verse documents Shankar’s plea to Harrison for assistance, and the lyrics “My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes / Told me that he wanted help before his country dies” 

Harrison then met with Apple signed band Badfinger in London to explain that he would have to abandon work on “Straight Up” , before flying to New York on 13 July to see Lennon. During the middle of July also, once back in Los Angeles, Harrison produced Shankar’s Bangladesh benefit record, an EP titled Joi Bangla. As with Harrison’s “Bangla Desh”, all profits from this recording would go to the newly established George Harrison–Ravi Shankar Special Emergency Relief Fund, to be distributed by UNICEF.

Also around the middle of July, the upcoming concert by “George Harrison and Friends” was announced via a small ad buried in the back pages of the New York Times”, Tickets sold out in no time, leading to the announcement of a second show. Towards the end of the month, when all parties were due to meet in New York for rehearsals, Harrison had the commitment of a backing band comprising: Preston, on keyboards; the four members of Badfinger, on acoustic rhythm guitars and tambourine; Voormann and Keltner, on bass and drums, respectively; and saxophonist Jim Horn’s so-called “Hollywood Horns”, which included Chuck Findley, Jackie Kelso and Lou McCreary. Of the established stars, Leon Russell had committed also, but on the proviso that he be supported by members of his tour band. Eric Clapton insisted that he too would be there, even if O’Dell and other insiders, knowing of the guitarist’s incapacity due to his severe heroin addiction, were surprised that Harrison had considered him for the occasion. Among Harrison’s former bandmates, John Lennon initially agreed to take part in the concert without his wife and musical partner Yoko Ono, as Harrison had apparently stipulated. Lennon then allegedly had an argument with Ono as a result of this agreement and left New York in a rage two days before the concerts The line up was staggering: First, there was Ringo Starr. As if half of the Beatles wasn’t enough of an enticement to fans,

As well as the songs he would go on to perform Harrison’s list included his own compositions “All Things Must Pass” with Leon Russell, apparently “Art of Dying” and the just-recorded B-side “Deep Blue” Eric Clapton’s song “Let It Rain” appeared also, while the suggestions for Dylan’s set were “If Not for You”, “Watching the River Flow” (his recent, Leon Russell-produced single) and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Only Harrison, Voormann, the six-piece horn section, and Badfinger’s Pete Ham, Joey Molland, Tom Evans and Mike Gibbins were at Nola Studios on that first day of rehearsals, and subsequent rehearsals were similarly carried out in “dribs and drabs”, as Harrison put it.

Only the final run-through, on the night before the concert, resembled a complete band rehearsal. On Tuesday, 27th July, Harrison and Shankar, accompanied by a pipe-smoking Allen Klein, held a press conference to promote the two shows notoriously performance-shy, Harrison said “Just thinking about it makes me shake. The “Bangla Desh” charity single was issued in America with a UK release following two days later. Ringo Starr arrived on the Thursday, and by Friday, 30th July, Russell was in town, interrupting his US tour. Leon Russell’s band members Claudia Linnear and Don Preston were added to Don Nix’s choir of backing singers. Billy Preston would switch to lead guitar for Russell’s solo spot during the shows, just as bassist Carl Radle would replace Voormann temporarily. At this point, Clapton’s participation was gravely in doubt, and Harrison had drafted in Jesse Ed Davis as a probable replacement. The ex-Taj Mahal guitarist received last-minute coaching from Voormann, who was more than familiar with Harrison’s songs, as well as those by Billy Preston and Starr.

The final rehearsal, the first for some of the participants, was combined with the concert soundcheck, at Madison Square Garden, late on 31 July. Both Dylan and Clapton finally appeared at the soundcheck that night.Even then, Clapton was in the early stages of heroin withdrawal – only a cameraman supplying him with some methadone would result in the English guitarist taking the stage the following day, after his young girlfriend had been unsuccessful in purchasing uncut heroin for him on the street. To Harrison’s frustration, Dylan was having severe doubts about performing in such a big-event atmosphere and still would not commit to playing. “Look, it’s not my scene, either,” Harrison countered. “At least you’ve played on your own in front of a crowd before. I’ve never done that.”  Stephen Stills having proceeded to sell out Madison Square Garden two days before the concert on 30th July, in support of his album, “Stephen Stills 2”, allowed Harrison to use his stage, sound, lighting system and production manager but was upset when Harrison “neglected to invite him to perform, mention his name, or say thank you”. Stills then spent the show drunk in Ringo Starr’s dressing room, “barking at everyone”.

The shows began with sets by Shankar and his musicians, followed by Harrison and his entourage, performing material both from his emerging solo career. Harrison began the concert with “Wah-Wah”, followed by his Beatles hit song’ “Something” and the gospel-rocker “Awaiting on You All”. Harrison then handed the spotlight over to Preston, who performed his only sizeable hit  “That’s the Way God Planned It”, followed by Ringo Starr, whose song “It Don’t Come Easy” had recently established the drummer as a solo artist. Next up was Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”, with guest vocals on the third verse by Russell, who covered the song on his concurrent album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People. After pausing to introduce the band, Harrison followed this with one of the best-received moments in both the shows – a charging version of the White Album track “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, featuring him and Clapton “duelling” on lead guitar during the long instrumental playout.

Both the band introduction and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are among the few selections from the afternoon show that were included on the album and in the film. Another one was Leon Russell’s medley of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the Coasters’ “Young Blood”, which was also a highlight of Russell’s live shows at the time. With Don Preston crossing the stage to play lead guitar with Harrison, there were now temporarily four electric guitarists in the line-up. Don Preston, Harrison and Claudia Linnear supplied supporting vocals behind Russell. In an effective change of pace, Harrison picked up his acoustic guitar, now alone on the stage save for Pete Ham on a second acoustic, and Don Nix’s gospel choir, off to stage-left. The ensuing “Here Comes the Sun” – the first live performance of the song, as for Harrison’s other Beatle compositions played that day was also warmly received. At this point, Harrison switched back to his white Fender Stratocaster electric guitar he looked down at the setlist taped to the body of the guitar and saw the word “Bob” followed by a question mark. “And I looked around,” Harrison recalled of Bob Dylan’s entrance, “and he was so nervous – he had his guitar on and his shades. It was only at that moment that I knew for sure he was going to do it.” Among the audience, there was “total astonishment” at this new arrival. As Harrison had envisaged, Dylan’s mini-set was the crowning glory of the Concert for Bangladesh for many observers. Backed by just Harrison, Russell (now playing Voormann’s Fender Precision bass) and Starr on tambourine, Dylan played five of his decade-defining songs from the 1960s.

The moment that put the Concert for Bangladesh over the top as one for the ages was when Bob Dylan walked out onstage. Like Harrison, he had not performed in public much recently, since a 1966 motorcycle accident that caused him to reassess his life and career. Dylan, who was reportedly nervous about playing to such a large audience, arrived onstage for the first show accompanied by Harrison, Russell (on bass) and Starr (playing tambourine) and performed five of his greatest compositions: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Just Like a Woman,” before Harrison and the band closed out the show. The evening show followed a similar trajectory, with both Harrison and Dylan making a handful of changes to their set lists: Dylan, notably, added “Mr. Tambourine Man” in place of “Love Minus Zero.”

Harrison and the band then returned to perform a final segment, consisting of his recent international number one hit, “My Sweet Lord”, followed by the song of the moment – “Bangla Desh”.

The Concert for Bangladesh recording, featuring highlights from the two shows, was released on December 20th, 1971, also winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. The film, Following the Bangladesh concerts, some controversy ensued over the allocation of the funds but an estimated $12 million ultimately found its way to aid in the relief efforts over the next decade and a half. And in the world of rock music, the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh is viewed as a landmark event, the first true large-scale benefit concert of its type; it would serve as the model for Live Aid and is seen as the prototype for many other such charitable events even today.

As of August 2020, neither the album nor DVD was in print. Perhaps for its 50th anniversary in 2021we get an updated version along with a full set of the songs performed each night.

 

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