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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh

40 years ago, ex-Beatle George Harrison rounded up what, at the time, was the most stellar collection of musicians ever assembled on one stage: Dylan, Ringo, Ravi Shankar, Leon Russell and more. Harvey Kubernik recalls the groundbreaking Concert for Bangla Desh--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Steve Van Zandt, May 2011, Lillehammer, Norway: "The anti-apartheid Sun City project (single, album, video, documentary, book, teaching guide) was a high point and a rare clear cut victory from the ten years I spent immersed in the dark, murky, frustrating labyrinth of international liberation politics. It came in the middle of my five politically themed solo albums and had its roots - like all the charity and consciousness raising multi-artist events that would follow - in the Concert for Bangladesh."

August 1st marks the 40th anniversary of two landmark benefit concerts that nearly 40,000 attended at Madison Square Garden in New York City on August 1, 1971 featuring George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Badfinger, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr, among others.

It was in Los Angeles earlier that summer of '71 when Harrison was alerted to the scale of suffering his friend and sitar teacher Shankar was feeling about the struggle for independence from the ten million East Pakistanis refugees who fled over the border from West Pakistan to neighboring India to escape mass starvation, hunger, and death.

Nearly three million people were killed. The dilemma and crisis was deepened when the 1970 Bhola cyclone and floods hit the region. At that moment, very little monies and help were made available from foreign governments.

Harrison then organized two relief of refugees charity concerts while composing, recording and releasing a studio single, "Bangla-Desh," that was available just before the heralded affair.

At the performances, Harrison and his karmic pals offered stellar renditions of "Wah-Wah," "Here Comes The Sun," "Something," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "My Sweet Lord, "Just Like A Woman." "Blowin' In The Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

The two concerts on 1 August 1971 were successful, garnering U.S. venue proceeds for $243,418.50 donated to UNICEF while also raising awareness and visibility for the organization around the world. The shows were recorded by Phil Spector and engineer Gary Kellgren with the music produced by Spector and George Harrison.

The Concert for Bangladesh (originally titled The Concert for Bangla Desh) initially was a live triple album commercially released in retail outlets just before Christmas in 1971 in the U.S. and after New Year's Day 1972 in the U.K. It immediately became a bestseller, landing at #2 for several weeks in the U.S. charts and becoming George Harrison's second #1 U.K. album.

Allegedly, an additional 15 million was also earned from the "Concert for Bangla Desh" album and film profits by the early-mid-70s. However, those funds reportedly were held in an Internal Revenue Service escrow account for years owing to the concert organizers having not applied for tax-exempt status. Eventually millions of dollars were given to UNICEF who distributed milk, blankets and clothing to refugees.

The Concert for Bangladesh was one of the first benefit concerts, along with the earlier 1967 Lou Adler and John Phillips produced Monterey International Pop Festival non-profit venture, that brought together an extraordinary assemblage of major artists collaborating for a common humanitarian cause - setting the precedent that music could be used to serve a higher cause. It has been the inspiration and forerunner to the major global fundraising events of recent years, preceding Live Aid by 14 years.

George Harrison and master sitar musician Ravi Shankar met in early summer of 1971 in Los Angeles, where they birthed the idea for The Concert For Bangla Desh. "I told George and George wanted to help me," Shankar explained to me in his San Diego area home in a 1997 interview published in HITS Magazine. "The film Raga was ready and it needed some finishing in which George helped. It was released, I believe, in 1972. There are many other people who could do what George does, but they don't have that depth. He's so unusual. What has clicked between him and me, what he gets from me, and what I get from him, that love and that respect and understanding from music and everything, is really the most important thing. It's not the money, or he helping me to record, that's not the main thing. But it's the very special bond between both of us."

Shankar lived in Los Angeles in 1971. "I had a house on Highland Avenue. A beautiful Spanish villa and at that time. George was in town, and at that time I was planning to do a benefit concert for Bangla Desh, because I was very hurt that this whole thing was going on. To help this refugee problem, I wanted to raise some money. Everybody, every Indian, was thinking about doing that. And then, when I thought about it, I knew I could do more than any other Indian musician. Still, how much can you send? $20,000? $25,000, at the most?

"At this time of turmoil I was having, George was there. He came to meet me and I was sitting. He saw me. From 1966, whenever he came to town, we would meet. At that time, he was staying in L.A. for a couple of weeks. I told him what I was planning. You know, it's like a drop in the ocean. At the same time, I never wanted to take advantage of him. I did not want to say, 'Would you help me?' But, somehow, it came very naturally. He was so sympathetic. 'Well...let's do something.' And you know that made me feel so happy. George is a very rare person...it is something so special. What he did, he immediately started phoning and booking things up. He phoned and got Madison Square Garden.

"Later, he contacted Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston and a few of his friends. Somehow, it was done. Within three weeks or so, we gave a performance and it was sold out. So, they had to schedule a matinee. As you know, the first half was me. I called my guru's son, Ali Akbar Khan, who plays the sarod. We were the first part. I composed the first lines for the items played as we always do and we improvised. And then intermission. There was no clapping when we were tuning, which is seen in the film and the people were so well-behaved. A lot of matches. It went beautifully."

Shankar, even in 1997, was amazed at the throng who hailed George Harrison and friends. "It was a young audience, especially because I had this existing audience already, who were mature listeners and who had come to Carnegie Hall. This audience was the same type of audience as the Monterey Pop Festival, but they were very attentive and there was no problem at all. After our segment, I went to see the second half. Their program was very complimentary, because they chose the numbers that were very soulful in the sense that they weren't hard rock. 'My Sweet Lord,' 'That's The Way God Planned It.' Bob Dylan had his harmonica and did ballads. George sang 'Here Comes The Sun,' and the song he composed 'Bangla-Desh.' There was harmony and it wasn't so different. It went off beautifully. The soundtrack won a Grammy."

"Really, it was Ravi Shankar's idea," answered Harrison in a press conference in July 1971. "He wanted to do something like this and was telling me about his concern and asking me if I had any suggestions, Then after an hour he talked me into being on the show. It was a question really of phoning the friends that I knew and seeing who was available to turn up. I spent one month, the month of June and half of July just telephoning people."

Harrison met Ravi Shankar in 1966 at a dinner party for the North London Asian Music Circle. In a 2002 Goldmine interview I conducted with drummer Jim Keltner, he reminisced about participating in the Concert for Bangla Desh and his then 30-year recording relationship and friendship with Harrison and record producer, Phil Spector. For the two Bangla Desh shows at Madison Square Garden, Keltner is double drumming with Ringo Starr. Ringo was asked by George to play and accepted on the condition "but only if Keltner will do it with me." Starr hadn't played in front of an audience in a while, either. Keltner was asked to participate and he replied, "of course, but I want to stay out of his way."

The drum duo had to work out some things at soundcheck, including the decision for Keltner not to employ his hi-hat cymbal much and emulate Levon Helm of the Band. Levon had a technique Keltner had had seen where he'd pull the hand off the hi-hat for the two and four, so that it didn't come down with the backbeat at the same time. And that enabled Keltner in getting out of Ringo's way on that fabled bandstand. "Ringo was a little on edge," volunteered Jim. "He didn't fancy playing alone and was kinda unsure about his playing. Which is amazing if you think about it. One of rock's all-time great drummers. All you have to do is listen to the Beatles records, of course, especially, the Live at the BBC. Rock and roll drumming doesn't get any better than that. Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Gary Chester, Fred Below, David 'Panama' Francis, great early rock and R&B drummers, and Ringo fit right in there with those guys. Listen to the BBC tapes and you'll hear what I'm saying. Playing on Bangla Desh was a really big deal for me. I made sure to stay completely out of Ringo's way and just played the bare minimum.

"After the earthquake in February of 1971 in Los Angeles, I told my wife, 'Get the kids together and get on over here.' We were there at a flat in Chelsea for a couple of months. During that time, George introduced me to Ringo and I played maracas on the single he produced for Ringo Starr at Trident Studio, 'It Don't Come easy.'"

"I remember loving the sound of the Garden. I heard Phil's voice over the speakers, but never really saw him at the actual show, except during sound check. He was in the Record Plant truck.

"Phil had his hands full and did a remarkable job, if you really think about it. Horns, multiple singers, double drums, lots of guitars. That was his forte, so he wasn't intimidated by two drummers and 14 background singers. On Bangla Desh, George was very lucky to have had Phil on that set."

In our 2002 dinner table talk, Keltner further regaled about Delaney & Bonnie and the Concert for Bangla Desh. "Leon Russell made it great to be there. I had played with Leon on quite a lot of stuff: Gary Lewis and The Playboys, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Leon played on a lot of Phil's great records."

The late bass player Carl Radle played on the Leon Russell portion of Bangla Desh. "Carl was one of my closest friends," lamented Keltner. "James Jamerson, Paul McCartney and Carl Radle - I always thought were the guvs. Carl was the first bass player I started playing rock and roll with. The good fortune and luck of that?

"Bangla Desh was a great little reunion. They loved playing with Ringo and me. Klaus Voorman was the principal bass player on Bangla Desh. Phil loved the way Klaus played. He had a great way of stretching the time. Klaus is one of the greatest bass players I've ever played with. His playing was always just exactly right for the song. He didn't have that much in the way of chops but he made up for that with his great musical sense."

Guitarist Jesse Ed Davis is also seen and heard during Bangla Desh. Davis worked with Keltner and Spector on the concerts, as well as Lennon's Rock and Roll album. "Jesse Ed was the only guitar player who ever made me cry," revealed Jim.

Dr. James Cushing is a DJ on KCPR-FM on the California campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The Literature and English Professor supplies some observations on the Concert For Bangla Desh:

"The concert at one level is about India but on another level is not about India because Ringo Starr is singing 'It Don't Come Easy' and Bob Dylan singing 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' and George Harrison doing 'Something' have nothing to do with Indian, really. But the concert has to do with India. So how to you assemble a concert of non-Indian music and make it relevant to India? There is only one way to get some authentic serious Indian stuff on the bill. Everybody knew who he was already."It's maybe a less popular opinion for me to say that musically 'Bangla Dhun' is the high point of the Bangla Desh album. Simply in terms of the degree of artistry that is presented. There is also a degree of humility here, essentially with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, two of the greatest virtuosos in the history of playing stringed instruments, opening up for Ringo and Leon Russell. In other words, the old world having an ambivalent place in the new world. This music is a little bit more serious than our music.

"What Skankar and Ali Akbar do is very smart. Instead of doing a full raga performance, 35 minutes of just droning sitar and sarod. They start off with something with a bright, snappy tempo and they go. In other words, all the things that Americans who don't know much about Indian music they love about it they emphasize. There is also the touch of the feminine with the presence of Kamala.

"Shankar is treated as a kind of invocation of India. And the concert at one level is about India but on another level is not about India because Ringo Starr is singing 'It Don't Come Easy' and Bob Dylan singing 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' and George Harrison doing 'Something' have nothing to do with Indian, really. But the concert has to do with India. So how to you assemble a concert of non Indian music and make it relevant to India? There is only one way to get some authentic serious Indian stuff on the bill. Everybody knew who he was already."

Dr. Cushing suggests other insights into Harrison and friends' Bangla Desh outing:

"George Harrison's Bangla Desh tour takes it white suburban audience to Bangla Desh and then it takes us up to Watts for a while with Billy Preston with 'That's The Way God Planned It.' His authentic mastery of the Gospel idiom and his willingness to find ways to find ways to work that Gospel idiom into secular music." Billy also made the Beatles be on their best behavior when George invited him on the 'Get Back' recording sessions. Leon Russell and Billy Preston had played together earlier on the television series Shindig! in late May of 1965.

"'Beware of Darkness', with Leon Russell and Jim Horn playing sax, becomes more of a blessing," continues Prof. Cushing. "We have essentially an African-American gospel group with a British lead singer trying to get us into Hindu religious mythology. And this longhaired Oklahoma boy Leon drawls a country western take on the whole verse. So, we have India, plus England plus religious devotion, plus Hari Krishna plus rock super stardom. Only in America. The cultural salad bowl and head on collision.

"The fact that Leon Russell's second album has 'A Hard Rain's A Gonna-Fall' and 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry' in that order, and the Bangla Desh set does those songs in that order in similar arrangements, needs to be pointed out. Russell's musicality anchors the 'superstar' vibe of Dylan and two Beatles; they are the steak potatoes & peas, but Russell is the plate & the table. "Because two actual Beatles and a number of Beatles auxiliary members, Bob Dylan in the flesh, we don't have the Rolling Stones but a very good instancing of Rolling Stones Dionysian sexual rock energy with Leon doing 'Jumpin' Jack Flash.' All three of the '60s royalties and two of the forces that the '60s generation most bow down too.

"I do hope, though, that people recognize how important Leon Russell was to that Bangladesh band and to the rock scene during that whole 1969-72 period. There was R&B authenticity as represented by Leon's cover of Leiber and Stoller penned-Coasters' 'Youngblood.'" In spring 2011, the EMI/CAP record label released The Best of Leon Russell that contains his rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash/Youngblood" live medley culled from the legendary happening.

In spring of 1971, Jim Keltner had done some recording sessions with Bob Dylan. "In March of '71 I did a couple of songs with Leon, Carl Radle, and Jesse Ed Davis for Bob Dylan ["Watching The River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece"]. When George introduced Bob [at Bangla Desh], I stood backstage and Dylan walked on. Jean jacket, kind of quiet, the way Bob always is. Standing in the back in the dark, it was great to see Leon have the guts to get up there with the bass and perform with him on 'Just Like A Woman.'"

Patti Boyd, former Vogue model, George Harrison's wife, inspiration for "Something" and Eric Clapton's "Layla," had witnessed her husband organizing the Bangla Desh talent in the Nichols Canyon house they rented in Southern California for the summer of 1971.

It was well documented that Patti and George had concerns about Dylan showing up at the Bangla Desh booking. Although she was quite relieved when Dylan arrived at the rehearsal.

Boyd was subsequently backstage for all the action and caught the second show in second row center-stage seats. "Sensational. It was amazing. Really wonderful. So exciting," she told journalist Michael Simmons in July 2011 at Boyd's photo show on Catalina Island. "So exciting that George pulled it off. I remember when Dylan was onstage, everybody said 'Oh my God, he's not going to get off!'" Boyd, wasn't criticizing Bob for playing too long, but was simply inferring that despite the fact that no one was sure he'd show up, once he did Dylan had a blast performing.

At the Ash Grove music club on Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood, Ca. in 1971, Phil Spector disclosed his Bob Dylan Bangla Desh story to the adoring throng: "Nobody really knew Bob Dylan was coming, including us, 'cause he was our bicycle riding most of the morning. The funniest thing, we were all sitting in the hotel room and George said, 'Bob, do you think...it would really be groovy if you'd just come out one time and do a bit of 'Blowin' In The Wind?' Just turn them all on, you know.' 'Ummm, man, you gonna do 'I Want To Hold Your Hand?'"

In a 1971 radio interview on Los Angeles AM radio station KDAY, Spector previewed selections from his first generation Bangla Desh master tape acetate. He and the DJ aired Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" from the concert as well as Dylan's non-released "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," left off the package due to vinyl space limitations of the period.

"Bob just came in right from bicycle riding on the day of the show," Spector said. "Bob just got up there and sang. It was probably the best performance he's ever done. In my opinion the album is worth buying just for Bob Dylan. And I'm not just trying to sell the album but it's such an extraordinary performance."

Dr. Cushing further dissects the stage repertoire of Bob Dylan on August 1, 1971 at his Madison Square Garden Bangla Desh appearance. "This is the first time since 1965 that Dylan is singing his own material in New York and given how central the city is to his career. The surprises that it represented because no one at the arena or record business expected to hear or see him do something like this. Only in a sense is there a link to him performing at The March on Washington in 1963 where Dylan shows up to support an event for the larger good of a humanitarian cause. The March on Washington was much more explicitly political than the concert for Bangla Desh.

"The fact for the first time we get to hear George and Ringo and Bob we get to hear Bob Dylan and the Beatles singing together for the first time ever. Kind of a thrill of uniqueness. All of the Dylan songs come from 1963-1966.

"Dylan had just turned age 30. He didn't perform any compositions from his recent albums of the time, Nashville Skyline, Self-Portrait and New Morning. He was distancing people from the notion of Bob Dylan as the voice of his generation. So the gesture he makes in Bangla Desh, and this is a very voice of a generation kind of move. Maybe because it is a special thing for Harrison and a special thing for Bangla Desh, he'd be willing to do it just one more time.

"Plus, later in 1971, Dylan and Columbia Records release his Greatest Hits Vol. 2 that has a cover photo and other pictures from his Bangla Desh appearance.

"But let's not forget the next time Bob Dylan emerges he is a very different kind of performer with a different voice, a different haircut, a different set of arrangements for his Before the Flood tour," concludes the rock & roll doctor.

"When the Beatles started hanging out in Hollywood and Los Angeles with David Crosby, Peter Fonda, and the 'Benedict Canyon' type of people," elaborated music business veteran and Sirius XM DJ, Kim Fowley in 2011, "George went a little further and began wishing he was in a band like Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, who became the blue print and the template for the Concert for Bangla Desh. Leon Russell, Carl Radle, Jim Keltner and Eric Clapton. Eric was more American emotionally than he ever was English. George was the most American of all the Beatles. He had been to America and St. Louis before the band came to New York in 1964. George Harrison wrote 'Blue Jay Way.' So he was the first Beatle to write a song about America.

"The Concert for Bangla Desh symbolizes a pan-national version of Mad Dogs & Englishmen. And if go back to that point, that is another extension of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. It was George Harrison thinking of himself possibly in a telethon context. George saw that idea and he took it to the next level. Because he was a Beatle who could think. Harrison was invisible when he needed to be. George Martin was the catalyst for the embryonic dreams of Lennon, McCartney, Starkey and Harrison. Martin was able to consolidate and expand their anticipation. He was a great editor.

"Delaney & Bonnie were that kind of revolving door friendly Southern jam tradition. And in the final part of George's life, the Traveling Wilburys.' Who was in the Travelin' Wilbury's? Americans, along with him and Jeff Lynne. So that was an extension of Bangla Desh and an extension of Delaney & Bonnie.

"The guitarist Don Preston was at Bangla Desh with Leon Russell and Preston had been in the Shindogs with Delaney Bramlett. I knew Leon Russell. He was a member of the Wrecking Crew along with Jackie Kelso, Jim Horn and Lew McCreary, who were the horns at Bangla Desh."So Leon was used to playing on Frank Sinatra and Gary Lewis & the Playboys session dates. He was always around multiple famous people because they all made records together. So he was able to deal with a revolving door again policy of famous people. Because that's what his day job was as a studio musician.

"Bangla Desh is now appreciated because it stood the test of time. As opposed to the latest phenomena on YouTube or Facebook that will be forgotten by dinnertime. And that's why it's good because it is based on tradition and tradition is something the new cycle is missing. And that's why it's worth checking out. If you were young and weren't there the first time you get to see where it all comes from and it has a richness and depth of culture. And secondly, if you were there it reminds you how much better things were yesterday. Because tomorrow is fast food entertainment."During 2011 Ravi Shankar continues to perform around the world. He is age 91 and is scheduled to perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 29th as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic World Music series. In November a recital is scheduled for Calcutta.

The documentary Living in the Material World: George Harrison is scheduled to premiere on Oct 5th and 6th on HBO. Director Martin Scorsese has been working with Harrison's widow Olivia for the last four years on this film.

 

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