John Lennon was keen to help Harrison and show gratitude for his work on Imagine, but was unwilling to perform without Yoko Ono. Harrison, however, was resolute that there would be no avant garde performances at the event. Lennon initially agreed, but following an argument with Ono, left New York two days before the concerts.
Lennon later blamed Allen Klein for spreading false rumours, and suggested an alternative scenario:
I just didn’t feel like it. We were in the Virgin Islands and I certainly wasn’t going to be rehearsing in New York, then going back to the Virgin Islands, then coming back up to New York and singing.
Ono was keener than Lennon to perform at the event, even without her husband.
A phone call came and John picked it up. He was saying ‘Yeah… yeah… yeah.’ I saw that he was getting very upset. He hung up the phone without saying a word. ‘What was that?’ ‘Oh, that was George.’ A long pause. ‘He’s saying, ‘Join the Bangladesh concert,’ and all that. Dylan is coming too. I’m not going.’ ‘Why? I think we should go. It’s a charity. It’s for a good cause,’ I said, ‘We’re not doing it.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it’s George’s little thing. We’ll do our own, you and me.’ ‘I think we should go,’ I said. ‘Does it matter that it’s George’s?’ John was getting angrier and angrier. I was getting angry, too. I thought John was being big-headed about it. ‘Okay, if you don’t want to go I’ll go. I’ll go alone,’ I said. John flipped out. ‘You want to be a performing flea, go ahead! You’d perform at the drop of a hat with any excuse, anywhere…!’ … ‘I think we should go.’ ‘I’m leaving!’ John left the room in a huff. I just sat there…
I heard much, much later, that George Harrison told John to come alone to the Bangladesh show, without me, that is. Was that the real reason John did not wamt to do the show? I guess I will never know.
John Lennon Anthology booklet
More reliable were some of the musicians Harrison had worked with on All Things Must Pass. Billy Preston and Klaus Voormann agreed to participate, as did bassist Carl Radle. Badfinger’s three guitarists played acoustic guitars, while drummer Mike Gibbins played percussion. Asked if he minded not playing his full kit, Gibbins told Harrison: “I’m only here for the beer.”
Top of Harrison’s wish list were Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, close friends but difficult to pin down at the best of times. Dylan had performed in public on only two occasions since his 1966 motorcycle accident. Although he attended rehearsals for the Bangladesh shows, Harrison was far from confident he would attend, writing “Bob-?” in his handwritten setlist.
Clapton, meanwhile, was in the midst of heroin addiction, which began in part by his as-yet unrequited love for Harrison’s wife Pattie. Clapton expressed willingness to perform, but failed to show on any of the flights Harrison booked him on. He eventually arrived at close to showtime, but missed any substantial rehearsal opportunities.
As backup, Harrison had invited Taj Mahal guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Other performers included Leon Russell, Don Preston, the six-piece Hollywood Horns, and seven backing vocalists. Steven Stills offered his sound and lighting rig, but was upset when Harrison neglected to invite him to perform. Stills spent the show drunk in Ringo Starr’s dressing room.
The two Concert For Bangla Desh shows were announced in a small article in the New York Times, which announced an event featuring “George Harrison and friends”. Initially the shows were to have taken place on consecutive evenings, but the 31 July concert was moved to 2.30pm the following day after tickets had been printed.
First of all, we said we would do one concert and the person who is my business manager, he anticipated a sellout but I wasn’t so sure. I knew The Beatles could always have a sellout but on my own, it was different. We advertised for one concert, and they had to sell the tickets from midnight. The police came because it was such a big queue and the police said they had to open the box office and sell the tickets from midnight and they sold out by 5am. So, because it was such a big demand, we decided to do two concerts. We put in an extra concert in the evening and that was sold out too. And then we sold the seats at the back of the stage where you couldn’t see anything. We had requests to sell these tickets, and we sold these, too.
Twenty thousand tickets were sold within hours of going on sale. Touts made a tidy profit, selling $7.50 tickets for as much as $20 as demand outstripped supply. The guest performers remained a secret until the actual shows, which only served to raise anticipation.
First rehearsals were held on 26 July 1971 at Nola Studios on West 57th Street. Harrison, Voormann, Badfinger and the horn players were the only musicians present, and subsequent rehearsals – both informal and scheduled – involved an array of performers.
Harrison feared he wouldn’t make it, after his flight from England to America encountered bad weather.
I almost didn’t make it. My plane got caught in a violent thunderstorm and was struck three times by lightning. We started bouncing around; dropping hundreds of feet all the time and the lights went out. There were explosions and everybody was terrified. A Boeing 707 went over the top of us, missing us by inches. I thought that the back end of the plane had been blown off. I ended up with my feet pressed against the seat in front, my seat belt as tight as could be, yelling, ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare,’ at the top of my voice. Miraculously, the pilot managed to land safely two hours later and I am adamant that my chanting, calling out the Hindi names for God, made all the difference.
A press conference was held on 27 July, by Harrison, Shankar and Allen Klein. The single Bangla Desh was issued in the US on the following day, and two days later in the UK.
Ringo Starr arrived in New York on 29 July, and the following day Leon Russell attended his first rehearsal. The final rehearsal and soundcheck took place at Madison Square Garden late on 31 July. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton both attended.
For both shows, Jonathan Taplin was production manager, while Chip Monck was in charge of lighting. The concerts were recorded by Gary Kellgren from the Record Plant studios, with Phil Spector overseeing, and Allen Klein organised the filming.