George Harrison made it his life’s work to raise consciousness, in every sense of the phrase. In 1971, he managed the extraordinary combination of both raising money for a desperate humanitarian plight in South Asia, and creating a hit record about it.
Probably not too many radio programmers or record buyers knew very much about the former East Pakistan until Harrison used his influence to publicise the country’s plight. He had been deeply moved when his friend Ravi Shankar brought to his attention the human disaster in which millions of refugees from the country were starving, because of the effects of the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and the Liberation War.
At the end of July 1971, Harrison released the “Bangla Desh” single on Apple (the country’s name is now usually spelt as one word, but appeared as two on the disc, and in the subsequent publicity). Thus he brought this humanitarian crisis to the world’s attention as only a world-famous former Beatle could. On the record’s release day, George and Ravi held a press conference to announce their ambitious concert plans for just a few days’ time.
The two Concerts For Bangla Desh took place at Madison Square Garden in New York on August 1, starring Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Shankar, Badfinger, and many others. A total audience of 40,000 helped generate an estimated $250,000 for famine relief in the country, over $1.5 million in today’s terms.
Then came the single. Co-produced by George with Phil Spector, it featured Starr and Jim Keltner on drums and other such alumni as Billy Preston and Leon Russell. As a measure of just how little-known the cause was, Billboard misspelt the title as “Bengla Desh” as it entered the Hot 100 at No.67 on August 14 – just two places below Paul McCartney’s early solo offering, and future US No.1, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”
“Bangla Desh” made good progress in the ensuing weeks, although its No.23 peak in September – in the week after McCartney’s single topped the chart there – was slightly modest by comparison with its No.10 showing in the UK. The song also made the Top 10 around much of Europe.
Buy or stream “Bangla Desh” as a bonus track on the 2014 remaster of George’s 1973 album Living In The Material World.