In 1971, a war and devastation in a country barely known in North America became the focus of concerts that helped raised money and awareness – The Concert for Bangladesh.
East Pakistan was struggling to become independent during 1970-71 liberation war, while the Bhola cyclone hit the area in November 1970. These two events caused the displacement of seven million people, refugees trying to survive the effects of war and famine.
Musician Ravi Shankar, working with former Beatle George Harrison on an album, expressed his anger and horror at the unfolding crisis in East Pakistan (colonial name prior to Bangladesh).
Harrison and Shankar read an article in London’s Sunday Times, showing the horrible conditions and atrocities that were happening and decided to do something to raise awareness, and support the people’s independence.
With three months of planning, George Harrison called on his well-known musician pals to create The Concert for Bangladesh, two concerts on Sunday August 1, 1971 at New York City’s Madison Square Gardens.
Mixing traditional Indian music with contemporary pop, the concert started with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, traditional Indian musicians, and then was a well-known list of American and Brit performers – Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger.
The headliners were backed by a nine member band, the six member Hollywood Horns and seven back-up singers – plus two well-known Indian musicians.
The two sold out shows, with 40,000 people attending, became the first well-known concert done for charity. Shankar had hoped to raise $25,000 for refugees. UNICEF, who helped administer the money, benefitted with $250,000 raised from the concerts.
NME described the concerts as the “greatest rock spectacle of the decade” since this was the first time two ex-Beatle members had graced the stage together and with the appearance of Dylan, who had quit touring.
A triple-live album The Concert for Bangladesh, recorded by Phil Spector, was released in December 1971/January 1972, which became a bestseller on the charts.
Controversy did strike this project – as there was no tax-exempt status for the project, buying the album or eventual video of concerts, which led to many problems with proper distribution of funds to the charity, as it was held in escrow until taxes were assessed and paid.
All money was eventually channeled through the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF, which continues to benefit from sales of the album and concert film to this day, and these concerts are credited with being the first time pop music took a stand to help those in need on such a large scale.