Two benefit concerts, organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, were held on this day at Madison Square Garden in New York City. They were arranged to raise awareness and money for refugees from East Pakistan following the 1970 Bhola cyclone and civil war in the country.
It was obviously a very successful show. At the time when I was putting it together I had no idea about how it was going to turn out. We were fortunate that it turned out well, but, at the same time, I had no idea about what I was letting myself in for. I had a vague idea but it was all so much bigger than I thought.
Collectively known as The Concert For Bangla Desh, the concerts took place at 2.30pm and 8pm and featured an array of top class performers including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston. The shows raised nearly $250,000 to help humanitarian aid projects in Bangladesh, and became a template and inspiration for subsequent charitable concerts including Live Aid.
Harrison and Shankar had been friends since the mid 1960s, when the Beatle’s interest in Indian music and spiritually caused him to seek out the venerable Indian musician. Shankar strongly identified with the Bengalese, who in 1971 were struggling for their lives.
Bangla Desh (later Bangladesh) was seeking independence from Pakistan, which was guilty of genocide and mass rape on an enormous scale during the Bangladesh Liberation War. In addition, the Bhola cyclone in November 1970 and the resulting torrential rain and floods threatened a humanitarian crisis. At least seven million displaced people sought refuge in India.
A lot of people were killed by the West Pakistani government who wouldn’t allow them to be as they wanted to be. A lot of people were massacred to death. It was terrible, bigger than the Second World War and so many millions of people ran out of the Bangladesh area into India to get away from the killing and, because one thing and another thing, there was a spread of disease and death. Altogether, it was something like eight million people. I don’t understand the political thing, but I know that killing is not a good thing. The main reason I was involved was purely to try and raise some money in order to try and relieve the situation.
Shankar brought the matter to Harrison’s attention in early 1971 over dinner at Friar Park, Harrison’s mansion in Henley-on-Thames. By April that year the pair were in Los Angeles working on the soundtrack to the film Raga; Harrison referenced the crisis in the lyrics to the song Miss O’Dell, which was written at the time:
I’m the only one down here
Who’s got nothing to say
About the war
Or the rice
That keeps going astray on its way to Bombay
And the smog that keeps polluting up our shores
Is boring me to tears
Why don’t you call me, Miss O’Dell?
Harrison returned to England to produce Badfinger’s album Straight Up, and performed on John Lennon‘s Imagine. All the while Shankar – who remained perplexed by the Western world’s indifference to the unfolding humanitarian crisis – kept Harrison informed through newspaper and magazine cuttings.
Shankar hoped to stage a benefit concert with proceeds going to relief agencies. However, he knew little of the logistics of arranging such an event, so turned to Harrison for help. Harrison abandoned work on the Badfinger album and flew to New York, where he spent several weeks on the telephone organising what became the Concert For Bangla Desh.
First of all, I didn’t know anything about it until Ravi Shankar told me about it and he said he was intending to do something, which would have made a bit more morey than what he could normally make. He was talking about making something like $25,000 and then he started giving me all these articles showing what was going on there, until I got sucked right into it. He asked me whether I could think of ideas to help make a concert. We started thinking about the concert in July. Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should go on. That’ll ad a bit more weight,’ and then the idea snowballed. Every time I thought about it, my heart started pounding and I started to think, ‘Well maybe I can con a few superstar people into coming on and doing it.
Harrison was doubtful that Shankar’s initial plans were sufficient to raise the necessary awareness and aid. Having learnt from Lennon to think bold, he rallied a number of musicians he hoped would perform at the concert. The project began in earnest during the last week of June, with the only available dates for Madison Square Gardens being the weekend of 31 July and 1 August.
A single by Harrison, Bangla Desh, was recorded in Los Angeles in early July 1971, and released at the end of the month just before the Madison Square Garden shows. It became the first ever rock ‘n’ roll charity single.
Harrison’s first contacts for the show were the three other former Beatles. Paul McCartney was unwilling to participate while the group’s ongoing litigation was unresolved. The involvement of Apple’s business manager Allen Klein also influenced his decision, telling Melody Maker’s Chris Charlesworth:
You know I was asked to play at George’s concert in New York for Bangladesh and I didn’t. Klein called a press conference and told everyone I had refused to do so for the Pakistani refugees – that’s what he called them. It wasn’t so. I said to George the reason I couldn’t do it was because it would mean that all the world’s press would scream that The Beatles had got back together again, and I know that it would have made Klein very happy. It would have been an historical event and Klein would have taken the credit. I didn’t really fancy it anyway. If it wasn’t for Klein I might have had second thoughts about it, but I don’t know really.
Melody Maker, 1971
Ringo Starr, too, proved initially reluctant to commit, although he eventually left Spain, where he was acting in the film Blindman, to perform. In the meantime, Harrison also enlisted session drummer Jim Keltner.