His biographer Gary Tillery says on this day in 1971, George Harrison “changed the perception of recording artists, making it clear they could be good world citizens too!” He did that by organizing and starring in The Concert for Bangladesh, the first real effort to merge rock music and charity.
The area now known as Bangladesh had been undergoing a terrible two-fold crisis. A civil war and attempt to declare independence had left thousands dead and as many as seven million refugees, many crowding into India. And a massive cyclone had caused devastation the previous winter, killing tens of thousands more and washing away towns. Harrison had been briefed about the calamity by his friend, sitar-player Ravi Shankar, and decided to do something. (When asked why he got involved, he simply answered “because I was asked by a friend if I’d help.”)
His answer was a star-studded concert (or two) to raise funds for the refugees and popular awareness of the problem. After only six weeks of planning, Harrison staged a pair of concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden on this Sunday, at 2:30 and again at 8 pm. Although little-publicized, they sold out and the 40 000 fans raised about $250 000 for Unicef through initial ticket sales. The resulting album raised millions more, with Unicef apparently receiving about $12 million by the mid-’80s. Harrison got Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and more to perform. John Lennon had initially agreed to perform but backed out when it was clear Yoko Ono was unwelcome; Paul McCartney apparently refused outright, saying “blimey! What’s the point? We’d just broken up!” But fans weren’t short on great performers or performances, starting with Ravi Shankar followed by a long set featuring Harrison with his friends behind him, performing songs like a medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Young Blood” led by Russell, “Here Comes the Sun” and Dylan doing a five song set including “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”.
McCartney and Lennon missing notwithstanding, the set was a success, Phil Spector would say “it was magical…nobody had ever seen anything like that before” Spector produced the album for Harrison, which ended up hitting #1 in the UK and #2 in North America and winning the Grammy for Best Album. And with George’s help, the stage was set for future charity events, such as Live Aid 14 years down the road.