Fully 14 years before Live Aid, on 1 August, 1971, George Harrison, his friend and mentor Ravi Shankar and a host of stars pulled off something that had never been achieved, or even attempted before: the two Concerts For Bangla Desh at Madison Square Garden in New York.
George had been deeply moved when Shankar had brought to his attention the plight of millions of starving refugees of the former East Pakistan, suffering the effects of the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and the Liberation War in the country. Five days earlier, on July 27, he had released his single ‘Bangla Desh’ on the Apple label, bringing this humanitarian crisis to the world’s attention as only a world-famous former Beatle could. That same day, he and Shankar held a press conference to announce their ambitious concert plans for just a few days’ time.
The track, co-produced by George with Phil Spector, featured Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner on drums and other such alumni as Billy Preston and Leon Russell. It went to No. 10 in the UK and No. 23 in the US, and made the top ten around much of Europe.
On August 1,after rehearsals in New York, the concerts took place at 2.30pm and 8pm. They played to a total of 40,000 people, who were treated to a spectacular bill with the above-mentioned players from the single, the supergroup featured Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Shankar, Hindustani musician Ali Akbar Khan, Klaus Voorman, Bobby Whitlock, Jesse Ed Davies, Carl Radle and the Apple-signed hitmakers Badfinger.
One of many historic aspects of the shows was that they were Harrison’s first live appearances for a paying audience since the Beatles’ final concert at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, in 1966. The concerts produced a live album, a three-disc set and the Apple Films documentary of the occasion that became a cinematic release the following year. The album entered the Billboard chart on 8 January 1972 and went to No.2 on the US chart, where it spent 6 weeks, never quite making it to the top spot.
The fundraisers generated an estimated $250,000 for famine relief in the country, close to $1.5 million in today’s terms. The concert was released as a DVD in 2005, and continues (along with the album) to raise funds for what is now called the George Harrison Fund For UNICEF.
“Harrison & Friends Dish Out Super Concert For Pakistan Aid” was the headline for Billboard magazine’s news story in the August 14 issue. “Almost all of the music reflected what must have been the feelings of each musician who gave his time and tremendous efforts for free, to help a helpless country,” wrote Bob Glassenberg.
In 2006, George’s widow Olivia attended a ceremony in which Madison Square Garden marked the 35th anniversary of the concerts by installing a permanent plaque in the arena’s Walk of Fame. Today we have become so used to artists supporting causes with charity concerts, charity recordings, and in many other ways, and it is wonderful that people do this kind of thing. However, George was way ahead of the curve and his humanitarian work was groundbreaking and he has been the inspiration for many that have followed. George Harrison truly was a humanitarian.