In the Summer of 1971, the South Asian nation of Bangladesh was in ruins. A recent cyclone had killed 300,000 people. Flooding and war left survivors starving and homeless. Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, whose ancestors hailed from the area when it was a part of India known as East Bengal, was so pained by the suffering that he asked his friend George Harrison for help.
"He saw my anguish," Shankar, 85, recalls, "and he was very sympathetic." Harrison quickly cut a new song, "Bangladesh," to bring attention to the crisis, then called on rock-star friends such as ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to sign up for a charity show to the beleaguered country: The Concert for Bangladesh, held on the afternoon and evening of August Ist, 1971, at New York's Madison Square Garden. "It was magical," marvels Shankar, who also performed. "Within hours of the show, Bangladesh was known all over the world."
Harrison had also invented the superstar benefit concert, a milestone immortalized in the documentary filmed that day and its Grammy-winning soundtrack. This month, The Concert for Bangladesh is reissued as a two-disc DVD with bonus footage and a remastered two-CD set with a previously unreleased Dylan performance — a timely reminder of how Harrison's achievement became the model for three decades of relief efforts by musicians, including Live Aid in 1985 and recent benefits for victims of Hurricane Katrina. "George didn't blow his own horn much," says his wife, Olivia. "But he knew what he had done. He put something out there that people could learn from."
Harrison, who died in 2001, had no precedent to guide him in 1971. And he was a reluctant live performer. His last major show, other than guest-sideman shots, had been the Beatles' final concert in 1966. Saul Swimmer, who directed the Bangladesh movie, says Harrison initially wanted to do the show at New York's intimate Town Hall: "He didn't think he could sell out the Garden. He was very insecure."
By the last week of July, Harrison was in New York practicing with Starr, Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and a small army of sidemen and backup singers. Harrison's portion of the set consisted of four songs from his 1970 solo opus, All Things Must Pass, and three of his Beatles classics, including "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," none of which he had ever played for an audience. But Preston says rehearsals "went really well. I played on a lot of the original records, so I knew the songs. But the guys in the horn section wrote out charts, and we all pitched in to pull the music together."
Harrison was so nervous about his solo concert debut that he had doubts about even filming the Bangladesh shows. "That's why we shot in 16 mm — so nobody was bothered by the cameras," Swimmer says. "We didn't even have a set list. At one point, Leon Russell's voice suddenly comes out of the dark [for his "Jumpin' Jack Flash"/"Youngblood" medley], because we didn't know Leon was going to sing. We were searching for where this voice was coming from."
Dylan was to be Harrison's special closing guest gift. He almost didn't play. Like Harrison, Dylan had not toured since '66. He was so jittery backstage during the afternoon show that Apple Records promotion manager Pete Bennett, who was sitting with Dylan, took action. "I sent Saul a note," Bennett says, "to give to George: 'Put Dylan on now, instead of last, because he wants to leave.'"
But the evening show that made up most of the Bangladesh movie was the celebration of camaraderie and generosity that Harrison intended. Highlights include Preston's sponteneous gospel-spirit dance in "That's the Way God Planned It" (originally about forty seconds long but cleverly extended by Swimmer by recutting and repeating footage) and the smiles exchanged by Harrison and Clapton as they trade solos in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." In a previously unseen rehearsal of Dylan and Harrison doing "If Not for You," they spend the entire song looking at each other, as if they're singing about their own relationship. "They seem so connected," says Olivia. "George was giving a lot to each person there, and you can see how much Eric and Bob are giving right back."
Ticket proceeds for the Concert for Bangladesh totaled $243,418, which went to UNICEF. That seems modest in an age of megabenefits (Live Aid raised $60 million in a single day), but Olivia estimates that continuing donations since 1971, in the form of artist royalties from the movie and album, are at about $15 million. "That's one of the lessons of Bangladesh — the simplicity of it, that you can have a great effect without big screens and sponsors," she says, noting that in 1973, Harrison established his own Material World Charitable Foundation to quietly continue what he had started. On his 1974 U.S. tour, Harrison donated the money from three shows to the foundation. "He just never told anybody," Olivia says.
"It was a wonderful event," Shankar says of the Concert for Bangladesh. But, he insists, "music doesn't help hungry people or those who suffer from floods. It is a there to raise funds. It is a practical thing. It is not that the music is healing the people. But this is the only thing a musician can do."
This is a story from the November 3rd, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.