Musicians George Harrison and Bob Dylan performing together during the Concert For Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden.

The Concert for Bangladesh in Photos

Remembering the concert (actually two concerts on the same day) that set the stage for countless star-studded benefit shows to come.

Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Photographs by Bill Ray

Today, it's easy to forget there was a time when the very idea of a rock and roll benefit concert was radical and new. But on August 1, 1971, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and some of the biggest names in the business got together for two remarkable shows at New York's Madison Square Garden. Their aim: to raise money for millions of people suffering halfway around the world ― and the model for every benefit concert that followed was born. The Garden at that point was just three years old ― but it was already recognized by performers and athletes as the world's stage: if it happened there, it mattered. (Pictured: George Harrison and Bob Dylan during one of two Concert for Bangladesh shows in New York City, 1971.)
Anticipation Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesAnticipationHarrison and Shankar organized the concert in response to humanitarian crises unleashed by parallel disasters in South Asia: a cyclone that killed up to 500,000 people in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and beyond in November 1970, and genocidal, sectarian warfare that convulsed the region throughout 1971. But much about the shows at the Garden remained a mystery until the music actually began. Photographer Bill Ray, who covered the concert for LIFE magazine and whose pictures are seen here, recalled the atmosphere before the first show. "Everyone was unbelievably excited," Ray told Foto. "A big part of that, I think, was that nobody knew what was about to happen, or who would show up." The crowd literally had no idea of the star power about to light up the Garden stage: posters publicizing the concert had read simply, "George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and …"
The Master Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesThe MasterRavi Shankar (1920 - 2012) was a master musician whose creative gifts and personal charisma helped popularize the use of Indian instruments (and especially the sitar) in Western music in the 1960s and beyond. But in 1971, few in the West fully appreciated his genius. "After Ravi Shankar and the other musicians come out and spent several minutes playing, or seeming to play, their instruments, the crowd gave a huge round of applause," said Bill Ray, laughing at the memory. "Shankar leans into the mic and says, 'Thank you, and if you appreciate our tuning that much, I hope you'll like our playing even more.'"

See the scene and hear Shankar.
Man in White Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesMan in WhiteIn his white suit, with his white guitar, George Harrison was a tall, bright presence on the Garden stage. Incredibly, he was also still a young man; in 1971, he was just 28 years old. But for a generation of fans, it was impossible to imagine or remember a world without him, and without the Beatles. "Photographing a concert like this one," Bill Ray told Foto, "even one where legends are playing right in front of you, you're not looking around and saying to yourself, 'There's George Harrison. There's Bob Dylan.' You're looking through your camera. Making sure you have the right cameras, lenses, film. Paying attention to the light. You have to be focused on getting pictures. Everything else has to sort of fade away." Starr Power Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesStarr PowerOver the course of the two shows, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Mick Jagger, Alla Rahka, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann (whose friendship with the Beatles went back to their Hamburg days), the "Hollywood Horns," and Ringo Starr (pictured) all joined Harrison and Shankar on stage. A highlight was Starr playing his hit single, "It Don't Come Easy," which had been released in the U.S. just a few months before. It was the first single of Starr's since the official breakup of the Beatles in 1970, and a number of musicians who had played on the record, including Voorman, members of the band Badfinger, and Harrison himself, were there with Starr, to play it before an adoring crowd at the Garden.
In the Spirit Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesIn the SpiritRoughly 40,000 fans attended the two sold-out shows, an afternoon matinee and an evening performance. "When you're a staff photographer for LIFE, like I was," Bill Ray told Foto, "you go where you're sent, and you get to work. In some ways, the Bangladesh concert was like any other assignment. I had to get pictures. But I remember the feeling in the Garden for both of those shows was really something special." Playing Through Pain Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesPlaying Through PainBy 1971, Eric Clapton had already played in or co-founded legendary bands ranging from the Yardbirds and Cream to Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes ― all by the time he was 26. When his good friend George Harrison asked him to play at the Concert for Bangladesh, he said yes, despite battling heroin addiction and other demons. And while he might not have been at his healthiest, or at his creative peak in the summer of '71, Clapton's astonishing guitar work on songs like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was a reminder of what a force he was ― and would be again. Alone in the Crowd Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty ImagesAlone in the CrowdAn unidentified fan takes in the Concert for Bangladesh. With tickets ranging from a high of $10 to about $4, the shows raised close to a quarter-million dollars ($1.5 million today), with the proceeds earmarked for UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund). The live album of the concert won a Grammy, and the concert film earned millions. There were some tax-related woes around the money raised ― hardly surprising, considering the benefit was a first of its kind. Today, the UN administers the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF, founded by Harrison's wife, Olivia, in the spirit of the 1971 concert. "What happened is now history: It was one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century." ― Ravi Shankar, 2005
Bob Dylan's Dream Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesBob Dylan's DreamEven with former Beatles in the house, the star of the proceedings was unquestionably Dylan (pictured here with Leon Russell on bass), who had not toured for years and, until the last minute, was not even a certainty to show up. When he did walk out on stage, his presence ratcheted the crowd's excitement to another level. Harrison later recalled that Dylan seemed incredibly nervous; but afterward, Dylan was so thrilled by the experience, the camaraderie on stage, and the crowd's response that he gathered Harrison in a bear hug and exclaimed, "God! If only we'd done three shows!" For the thousands who were there, and countless more who have heard and seen the concerts in the five decades since, two shows would have to suffice. Fortunately for all of us, they do.
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