Fifty years ago, New York City hosted one of the most significant events in popular culture history: The Concert for Bangladesh. Beyond the seismic importance of rock and roll’s trailblazing benefit concert, the show also underscored the Mecca status that the city had in 1971.
This analysis also prompts the inescapable question: Would New York hold the same sway today, in 2021?
The concert took place when George Harrison, the former Beatle whose band had split only the year before, learned that spring from his dear friend and mentor, the Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, of the devastation in Bangladesh. Something, both men concluded, had to be done at once.
Using his star power, Harrison announced two superstar concerts to be held on Aug. 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Ultimately Bob Dylan came out of retirement – and a Long Island vacation with his family – to play five songs with Harrison accompanying him. Shankar, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and other music luminaries joined them on stage. Nobody got paid.
Why New York?
So, why New York City instead of, say, Los Angeles or London?
“The feeling was that it was the United States that needed to be made aware of the horrible conditions in Bangladesh,” says Jonathan Taplin, who produced the afternoon and evening concerts. “Once we made that decision, New York, as the media capital, was the only choice of venue.
“George and Ravi felt the media exposure was more important than the money raised,” Taplin, who had met Harrison when he worked on the 1969 Isle of Wight concert by Bob Dylan and The Band, adds. “Of course, 50 years later, the film and record have raised more than $25 million for UNICEF in Bangladesh.”
The concerts were extravaganzas. The Garden audience sat in awe of the the star power and loved the music. Harrison, once dubbed “The Quiet Beatle,” this time stood out front, decked out in a stylish white suit.
For Taplin, the author the acclaimed 2021 memoir, “The Magic Years,” and so many others, the memory of the event lives on.
Taplin told the website Next Avenue a few months ago that one of the highlights of his 50-plus years in the entertainment industry was producing the Bangladesh benefit. “As an act of grace, I don’t think anything could top the Concert for Bangladesh. George Harrison undertook it out of pure love and respect for Ravi Shankar.”
Whither NYC in 2021
But what about our fair city in 2021? Is it STILL the most obvious city for a show of global import?
Nearly twenty years ago, New York was the clear choice for the major benefit concert following the 9/11 tragedy. Same with a special show to put a spotlight on relief after the Sandy superstorm in the fall of 2012.
Has New York sadly lost so much of its luster today? Has our city’s surging crime rate cast a pall over its shining image? Has the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic robbed New York of its glitz to a point where many people prefer to hide out in the suburbs now? Can Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams single-handedly help to revive the city’s fortunes and image?
Hopefully, we will not have to experience crises such as the aftermath of 9/11 or Sandy, or observe a far-off catastrophe on the order of what Bangladesh suffered through 50 years ago.
But if the world does seek to rally around an extravaganza again, will it instinctively turn to Madison Square Garden and New York City?
In 1985, remember, Philadelphia, of all places – the so-called fifth borough – and London served as the anchors for the massive Live Aid cause. For whatever reason, New York had been shut out.
In 1973, The Rolling Stones – eager to weigh in with a cause of their own, following the Concert for Bangladesh – staged their generous benefit concert for Nicaragua earthquake relief at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles, snubbing the Garden.
New York is not the only game in town when it comes to hosting big-deal events. But our city still commands huge media attention, even in an age of the splintered Internet.
If New York is not already back, don’t count us out. George Harrison knew what he was doing, back in 1971.