WITH A LITTLE HELP
Guitar Player|September 2021
In the summer of 1971, George Harrison corralled a who’s who of his musical friends to answer the call for humanitarian aid to Bangladesh. Two of his closest companions nearly left him hanging.
NIKKI O'NEILL

FIFTY YEARS AGO, Bangladesh was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Millions of refugees in what was formerly East Pakistan were fleeing genocidal massacres and rape in the Bangladesh War of Independence, as well as lingering devastation from the 1970 Bhola cyclone, the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded, that left at least half a million dead in its wake. The people were starving, but their plight was largely unknown in the West. Ravi Shankar knew he had to do something to bring attention and aid to the country. The famed Indian sitarist reached out to his friend George Harrison and asked him to do what only a famous former Beatle could do: Bring musicians and fans together to help end the disaster.

What Harrison and Shankar achieved was a massive benefit concert that was the first of its kind. Held 50 years ago this summer, on August 1, the Concert for Bangladesh gathered rock and roll’s royalty in New York City for a pair of shows to raise money for — and awareness of — the humanitarian crisis unfolding halfway around the globe. In a matter of weeks, Harrison managed to secure participation from such luminaries as his fellow former Beatle Ringo Starr, keyboardist Billy Preston, pianist and guitarist Leon Russell, bassist and longtime Beatle friend Klaus Voormann, studio guitar ace Jesse Ed Davis, Zappa collaborator Don Preston, the up-andcoming band Badfinger and a number of other musicians and singers. Together with Shankar and his fellow musicians, they performed a pair of sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden, including a 2:30 p.m. matinee and 8:00 p.m. show.

The concerts drew 40,000 people and raised $250,000 for UNICEF, while the 1971 triple live album and 1972 documentary of the show eventually raised millions more. Even before the concert took place, Harrison had released his single “Bangla Desh” on the Beatles’ Apple label. The track, which detailed the plight of the Bangladeshi people, was put into heavy rotation in the lead-up to the shows, bringing the single to number 23 on the Billboard charts.

Harrison’s achievement would prove nothing short of a miracle. No rock and roll musician had attempted anything like it before, and no template existed for a show of this size and with guests of such stature. The Concert for Bangladesh would cement the notion of a moral imperative for rock and rollers to do their part for those in need, as it laid the groundwork for the charity concerts that followed in the 1980s and beyond, including Live Aid and Farm Aid.

Yet in the days before the show, Harrison was filled with doubt and insecurity. He hadn’t performed in front of a large crowd since the Beatles’ final tour, in 1966. But those wild shows were scripted affairs lasting roughly 30 minutes, with the band’s performance entirely secondary to the sight of the four mop tops shaking their bodies onstage. Concerts had grown up in the intervening years and become listening experiences. And this particularly lengthy two-show stint — from the planning to the staging to the musicians, many of whom were flying in from the U.K., India and various parts of the U.S. — was all on Harrison’s shoulders. Many performers, like Leon Russell, had canceled other appearances, at great expense, to participate. As Harrison noted, “Nobody’s getting paid.” He was so focused on the concert’s purpose that he seemed to forget its sheer star power and openly fretted that nobody would care enough to buy tickets.

Remarkably, among all his friends in the show, Harrison would be kept waiting, wondering and worrying over the attendance of two who were his closest: Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. At the time, Clapton was deep into the throes of heroin addiction and uncertain of his ability to perform. Dylan, meanwhile, was a recluse, having given his last live performance in 1969, at the Isle of Wight.

But Harrison was among the best-connected people in rock at the time. As the August 1 concert date approached and Clapton increasingly looked like a no-show, he turned for help to another friend: Peter Frampton. Harrison had known the guitarist, then in Humble Pie, for a couple of years. Frampton tracked guitars on singer Doris Troy’s self-titled album, produced by Harrison for the Beatles’ Apple Records, and he played acoustic guitar on All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s third solo record. As it happened, Frampton and Humble Pie were touring in the U.S. that summer and spending time in New York City, where they were mixing their 1971 live breakthrough, Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, recorded the previous May 28 and 29.

“I ASKED GEORGE AND TERRY, ‘YOU MEAN YOU WANTED ME TO PLAY?’ THE LAST THING I WANTED TO BE WAS A STAND-IN FOR ERIC CLAPTON” — PETER FRAMPTON

“On the weekends, we’d fly off to perform, opening the bill for many different artists, and on weekdays we’d be at Electric Lady Studios in New York with Eddie Kramer, mixing the Rockin’ the Fillmore album,” Frampton recalls to Guitar Player. “I knew I was going to see George’s shows, and I asked if he needed me to play guitar, but they were overbooked with guitarists. So I wished him all the best with the show and told him I’d come see it.”

Unexpectedly, Frampton found himself invited to dine with Harrison and his wife, Patti, while they were in Manhattan. “Afterwards, we went back to the Pierre [Hotel], and he invited me up to their suite,” Frampton explains. “There were two electrics sitting by the window, and maybe one or two little amps. George asked if I wanted to play some guitar, and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ trying to keep my excitement under control.

“And without a word, he just started running through the songs they were going to do. My mind started going 14,000 miles an hour. I couldn’t understand why we were doing this if the guitar positions for the concert were filled. We must’ve played six to 10 songs, and he was checking me out to see if I was up to speed, which, of course, I was. How can you not be when it comes to the Beatles’ songs?”

In the days afterward, Frampton flew south to play a couple of shows with Humble Pie. Back in New York City, the behind-the-scenes drama escalated as the August 1 concert date arrived. Frampton returned on the day of the show. “I’d missed the first one, but I planned to go to the second, and so I picked up my tickets and backstage pass,” he says. “I watched the entire show, and at the end, I made my way to the side of the stage. Terry Doran [Harrison’s personal assistant] saw me, and his eyes got really big. He said, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve been on the road.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but we had no way of getting hold of you!’

Confused, Frampton explained that no one had asked for his number, adding that Harrison knew he would see him following the show. “And Terry says, ‘Well, George wants to speak to you!’

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