With Shankar’s passing many news agencies have rightly called him the most recognized, and perhaps accomplished, contemporary Indian musician in the world. They’ve reported on the sitar player’s influence on Western music, his relationship with the Beatles, George Harrison in particular, and, of course, his parentage of Norah Jones. Some have gone so far as to include mention of his performances at Monterrey Pop and Woodstock, but few have mentioned his most humanitarian venture, The Concert for Bangladesh, two benefit concerts organized by Shankar and Harrison “to raise international awareness and fund relief efforts for refugees of Bangladesh” escaping atrocities associated with the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, torrential rains and floods, and the Bhola cyclone which claimed upwards of half a million lives.
After bringing the plight of the Bengali people to Harrison’s attention, the two set out to begin raising awareness of the situation, first through Harrison’s song “Miss O’Dell” from the soundtrack to the film Raga and then with his song “Bangla Desh”, a single rush released just four days before the concert. Held on Sunday, August 1, 1971, the only date available at Madison Square Garden on such short notice, efforts for the event began in earnest only five to six weeks prior. Two shows were planned, one at 2:30 p.m. and a second at 8:00 p.m., for an audience of 20,000 each, featuring a supergroup comprised of 25 musicians including Harrison, his former bandmate Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, members of Badfinger, and Bob Dylan.
Co-produced by Harrison and Phil Spector, who naturally brought along his Wall of Sound, The Concert for Bangladesh album was originally released as a three-LP rock box set, the second ever after Harrison’s own All Things Must Pass. Featuring combinations of performances from both shows and including opening introductions by both Harrison and Shankar explaining the nature of the day’s event, the album is effectively the entire concert with one major glaring exception. The first musical act at both shows was a performance by Shankar, sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, tabla player Alla Rakha, and Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura, a virtual supergroup of Indian musicians. Their performance of “Bangla Dhun” according to Harrison extended beyond 45 minutes, unfortunately the album presents an edited version at just over 17 minutes with the film version showing even less. Though understandable from a commercial point of view, this omission has yet to be rectified, despite latter issues including Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limits” as a bonus track.
The Western portion of the day’s event began with a few of Harrison’s solo singles before peppering in Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It” and Ringo’s solo hit “It Don’t Come Easy”. The playlist returns to Harrison numbers including Beatles’ hits “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun”, sandwiching Leon Russell’s medley of “Jumping Jack Flash/Young Blood”. At the conclusion of “…Sun”, Harrison introduced the day’s main attraction, folk rock legend Bob Dylan. Performing five of his legendary hits, including “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”, “Blowin’ In the Wind” (on Harrison’s request), and “Just Like a Woman”, Dylan’s appearance marked his first on stage in two years, since 1969’s Isle of Wight. According to Harrison, the former Beatle didn’t know for sure if Dylan was going to show up until nearly eight songs into the first set.
Recording and filming both shows, Harrison originally (and optimistically) expected an album release within 10 days of the event. Unfortunately, record company avarice prevented any quick turnaround, pushing the album’s release to late December/early January, nearly five months after the concert. As Harrison was distributed by Capitol Records and Dylan by Columbia, the two labels fought it out over which would have the rights to release and distribute the recording. In the end, Capitol retained the rights to all vinyl releases, while Columbia held cassette rights. And while the musicians and Apple Records, the album supplier, provided their services at no charge, Columbia Records managed to guarantee $0.25 per record sold with none of the revenue going to the artists or the charity. To add further strife, additional accusations of mismanaging funds by Harrison’s then manager Alan Klein surfaced after the album’s release.
Originally hoping to raise at least $25,000, the concert generated that ten-fold, and with the help of album and film sales, eventually generated over $10 million by the time of Live Aid in 1985. Though big names and huge acts had gathered together at festivals like Monterrey Pop, Woodstock, Altamont and the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, those festivals, though possibly seeking to expand and explore art and culture, were rooted in making money. The Concert for Bangladesh, according to the editors of Rolling Stone, marked the “first-ever benefit concert of such a magnitude”, with Shankar himself saying years later, “In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion …”
Though the monies raised from The Concert at Bangladesh pales in comparison to the $35 million raised by the Sandy Benefit or the $235 million generated from Live Aid’s various extensions, the event’s legacy lies in the “magnanimous intentions” of the performers and all those behind the Concert, who truly believed that musicians could help change the world. Both the concerts and the subsequent recordings are testament to the power of music and musicians to bring people together, with one critic going so far as to suggest listening to this album “whenever your faith in the power of music begins to wane.”