Early in August 1972, John Lennon had the idea to perform a live benefit for the pupils of Willowbrook School in New York City, a state-run institute for children with mental disabilities. Following three days of rehearsals, two concerts took place on this day at Madison Square Garden. They were the last full-scale performances given by Lennon in public.
That Madison Square Gardens gig was the best music I enjoyed playing since the Cavern or even Hamburg… It was just the same kinda feeling when The Beatles used to really get into it.
New Musical Express
Lennon had seen Geraldo Rivera’s report for ABC TV on the physical and sexual abuse of the children and the poor facilities at the Staten Island school. He contacted Rivera and suggested they organise a benefit concert. Lennon enlisted Elephant’s Memory, the band he had recently recorded the Some Time In New York City album with, and rehearsals took place on 18, 20 and 22 August.
Lennon was, like many Americans, scandalised by the conditions at Willowbrook. He likely also saw it as a chance to rehabilitate his public image, in the light of poor sales of Some Time In New York City and the Nixon administration’s ongoing attempts to deport him. The success of George Harrison‘s Concert For Bangladesh the previous year may well have influenced his decision to get involved.
The event was part of the One To One Festival, which sponsored the individual mentoring of pupils at the school. Two concerts took place, one in the afternoon and another in the evening. Other guests on the bill included Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, and Sha Na Na, and the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band were the headline act.
Prior to the concerts, Lennon bought $59,000 worth of tickets and gave them away to fundraising volunteers, as he worried that not enough money was being generated. Both shows were sell-outs, however, and the day raised more than $1.5 million for Willowbrook. Proceeds from the tickets, which cost $5, $7.50 and $10, were intended to establish smaller residential facilities in the community for mentally-disabled people.
Initially just one concert had been planned, but an afternoon performance was added after sales for the evening show exceeded expectations.
The setlist for the first show was: Power To The People, New York City, It’s So Hard, Move On Fast, Woman Is The Nigger Of The World, Sisters, O Sisters, Well Well Well, Born In A Prison, Instant Karma, Mother, We’re All Water, Come Together, Imagine, Open Your Box, Cold Turkey, Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow), and Hound Dog.
With Lennon relatively unaccustomed to live performance by 1972, the first concert featured some ragged playing and a general lack of energy. Lennon acknowledged as much from the stage, telling the crowd: “Welcome to the rehearsal”.
The evening show featured fewer songs, with several sung by Yoko Ono omitted. The setlist was: Power To The People, New York City, It’s So Hard, Woman Is The Nigger Of The World, Sisters, O Sisters, Well Well Well, Instant Karma, Mother, We’re All Water, Come Together, Imagine, Cold Turkey, Hound Dog, and Give Peace A Chance.
In the final song Lennon and Ono were joined on stage by the other stars and the organisers of the concerts. A brief portion of this performance was included on the 1975 compilation Shaved Fish, as a coda to Happy Xmas (War Is Over), with Stevie Wonder’s vocals to the fore.
After the event the acts all attended a party held at the Tavern In The Green in Manhattan’s Central Park.
The concerts were filmed by a professional crew, and the superior evening performance was screened in an ABC TV special later in the year, as well as being broadcast in a King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show. ABC bought the rights for $350,000, which also went to the charity.
A selection of recordings from both concerts were issued on the posthumous 1986 album Live In New York City. A one-hour video was released on VHS, Betamax and later Laserdisc, featuring some different versions of the songs, including some by Yoko Ono.
Three songs, along with Geraldo Rivera’s introduction, were included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology. The songs were Woman Is The Nigger Of The World, It’s So Hard, and Come Together.