The musicians

Ravi Shankar had initially intended to headline a concert to raise “maybe 25,000 dollars” for the Bangladeshi refugees and victims of war. After hearing about their plight, George Harrison pledged to use his influence and status to stage a bigger event, and worked hard to enlist a range of leading musicians he counted as friends.

For three months I was on the telephone setting up what became the Concert for Bangla Desh, trying to talk people into doing it, talking to Eric [Clapton] and all those people who did to it.

We had very little rehearsal, in fact there was never actually one rehearsal with everyone present. We did it in dribs and drabs and under difficulties.

For a date, we had picked a period during which it had to be done. An Indian astrologer had said ‘this is a good period’ and he gave me around the beginning of August, and then we found the right day in August and that was when Madison Square Garden was free and so we rented it, and did the show then. We did two shows, putting in the second because the first one sold out and as luck would have it everything went off pretty well; it sounded really good in Madison Square Garden.

George Harrison
I Me Mine

In addition to the two shows, it was decided that a film and live album would raise further funds and awareness. Although Harrison delegated some tasks to Apple’s business manager Allen Klein, he was highly involved in the production and planning. He personally enlisted The Band’s production manager, which allowed him to use that group’s sound system and touring personnel.

The organisation of the entire event took around six weeks. The core group of pianist Leon Russell, bass guitarist Klaus Voormann, and drummers Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner signed up early on, although other acts only committed at a late hour.

In late July Harrison moved into the Park Lane Hotel in New York City, and on 27 July held a press conference with Shankar and Klein to publicise the event. Although he was visibly irked by the inevitable questions about a Beatles reunion, he had in fact asked each of his former bandmates to appear.

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.
Paul McCartney
Melody Maker, 1971

Ringo Starr was also 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.

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.
John Lennon

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 want to do the show? I guess I will never know.

Yoko Ono
John Lennon Anthology booklet

Several of the musicians Harrison had worked with on All Things Must Pass agreed to participate. 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.

George knew that Eric was in a bad way but his addiction was unspoken. He thought that if he got him on stage, even propped up with drugs, it would become an open secret and maybe he would open the door a little to his friends, who might be able to help. But everyone knew that if Eric was to have a chance of getting through two performances, one in the afternoon and another that evening, he would need a supply of heroin when he arrived in New York – obviously he couldn’t travel with it. I remember discussions about finding a really good one for him, called White Elephant. It had to be very pure because he never injected – he was terrified of needles – always snorted it, as if it was cocaine, from a gold spoon he wore around his neck.
Pattie Boyd
Wonderful Tonight

As backup for Clapton, 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.