The Concert for Bangladesh: The first rock benefit
In early July 1971 a small ad appeared in the back pages of The New York Times for a concert by ”George Harrison & His Friends.” Smelling a Beatles reunion or a rare appearance by Harrison amigo Bob Dylan, or both, fans gobbled up in ; six hours all 40,000 tickets for two shows. What they got on Aug. 1, 1971, was an equally historic but vastly different event — the Concert for Bangladesh, the first major rock fund-raiser and the archetype for Band Aid, Live Aid, and all other musical benefits to come.
In his 1980 autobiography, I Me Mine, Harrison said that his mentor, sitarist Ravi Shankar, wanted to raise $25,000 for the starving in war-torn Bangladesh. ”The Beatles,” wrote Harrison, ”had been trained that if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it big, and why not make a million dollars?”
Booking Madison Square Garden for early August (which his Indian astrologer told him was ”a good period”), Harrison, 28, got commitments to perform from his superstar friends (among them Shankar, Leon Russell, and Eric Clapton). The other ex-Beatles were al-so invited, but only Ringo Starr made it. John Lennon refused at the last minute when Harrison wouldn’t let Yoko Ono appear because her performing didn’t meet his standards. Paul McCartney didn’t even consider it; he was then suing to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership.
One Big Rumor, however, did come true. Midway through the program, Harrison laconically announced, ”Like to bring on a friend of us all — Mr. Bob Dylan.” Giving his first U.S. performance in three years, the scruffy legend got a 10-minute ovation.
The concert raised $243,418 for UNICEF but, in a sad presage of many rock benefits to follow, ran into deep problems. The millions that a concert album and film raised got bogged down in tax audits, legal battles, and distribution difficulties. It wasn’t until 1981 that UNICEF received the remaining $8.8 million raised by the album and movie; during that decade of squabbling, Bangladesh remained one of the world’s poorest countries. Harrison and the other concert-givers learned a hard lesson about living in the material world.