The 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan is just a week away. This weekend I’m going to focus on the two Beatles who have died, George Harrison and John Lennon.
For George, his big day was August 1, 1971.That was the day of The Concert for Bangladesh. It really started in early 1971, when Harrison was dining with Ravi Shankar. Ravi brought up the problems in Bangladesh. He kept Harrison informed. By Spring, the situation turned desperate. Shankar approached Harrison once again. Harrison’s response changed the music industry and helped determine his place in music history and as a humanitarian.
Since the breakup of The Beatles, Harrison was becoming a bigger force as a solo than he was as a Beatle. His solo record “All Things Must Pass” was a huge success. In my opinion, it’s the best solo album any of The Beatles have made.
He also did a few live gigs on The Delaney & Bonnie and Friends tour. It helped him form friendships with musicians such as Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Don Preston and Jim Horn. Those relationships were essential to the success of the concert.
The decision was made to put on a benefit concert. Today this happens easily. In 1971, everything was a challenge.
The venue was easy. Madison Square Garden, in New York City. The musicians were a little tougher.
Harrison and his then-wife Pattie Boyd came up with a list of musicians they wanted for the show. Ringo Starr was easy. You ask him and he’s there. Ringo is a hell of a guy. He just loves being part of a band. Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann and Billy Preston joined in. For them it was the biggest night of their careers.
Then it got interesting. They also invited Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, without Yoko.
Russell was in but he wanted to bring his band, too. They would play on his featured songs. No problem. McCartney was a no go from the start. He wasn’t ready for a Beatles reunion. Feelings were still too raw. Lennon was interested. He was prepared to play until the final weekend before the shows. A fight between him and Yoko over her not being invited sent them both running.
Clapton was another story. He was in the midst of his heroin addiction. No one was sure if he would be ready to play. Jesse Ed Davis was brought in as a possible replacement. Peter Frampton was also ready. Davis played. Frampton wasn’t needed. With some help, Clapton showed up and played.
And then there was Dylan…
Harrison wanted Bob Dylan most of all. He felt having Dylan there would turn an evening of great music into a historic night. Dylan bought into the idea right away. He wanted to help the refugees. He had one problem…stage freight.
Dylan hadn’t performed in front of a live audience in a few years. He didn’t think he was ready to be part of such a big event. Harrison had the same problem. He had never been the frontman for a band. The Beatles had stopped touring years before. George told Bob all of that. If I can do it so can you.
They didn’t know until showtime if Dylan was going to show. He did and it turned into one of the most memorable sets of his career.
If you think the troubles of getting the band together was tough, it gets worse.
First there was the issue of how to film the concert. Today’s technology wasn’t available in 1971. Now you can set up many cameras and microphones and easily sync them together. That wasn’t possible 42 years ago. The editors blew up each frame of film and put it together to the music. It was a painstaking, learning as we go process. It led to the many concert films you’ve seen since then. Definitely groundbreaking.
Next came the release of the album. Harrison wanted the album to hit the streets soon after the concert. He wanted to take advantage of the buzz coming from the show. Didn’t happen.
Phil Spector helped with producing the album and mixing the sound. It was ready to go. But with so many performers tied to different labels, releases were needed. Another first. That took time.
More money problems followed. The British government wouldn’t waive their share of the taxes. Because the concert hadn’t been registered as a benefit for UNICEF, the IRS held 8-12 million dollars in an escrow account.
Here’s the good news. Harrison talked about this in the 1990’s… “Now it’s all settled and the U.N. owns the rights to themselves, and I think there’s been about $45 million raised.”
Jesse Ed Davis, after many years of drug and alcohol abuse, died of a heroin overdose in 1988. Pete Ham and Tom Evans, from Badfinger, both committed suicide. Phil Spector sits in a California prison, convicted of killing actress Lana Clarkson. Leon Russell, after some major health problems, is back and touring again. Bob Dylan is still recording and performing. Eric Clapton cleaned up and is a bigger star now than before.
George Harrison died on November 29, 2001.
On November 29, 2002, a benefit concert was held in Harrison’s memory…The Concert for George.
Among the performers were Concert for Bangladesh veterans Clapton, Starr, Voorman, Keltner, Shankar, Keltner and Billy Preston . Shankar and Preston have since died.
Sales of the CD and DVD continue to benefit the causenow known as The George Harrison Fund For UNICEF.
Who knew that one day in August 1971 would change world and music history. It was also the day that George Harrison confirmed his legacy.