Before Live Aid and Farm Aid, there was one benefit concert which started them all, George Harrison’s incredible evening of entertainment known as the Concert For Bangladesh. The event welcomed the glittering phone book of the former Beatle and saw Harrison deliver some of the finest performances of his songs.
One such number saw George Harrison welcome Eric Clapton to the stage to perform a song the guitar God was very familiar with, The Beatles’ classic ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Below we revisit that brilliant footage.
The event was a crowning moment for Harrison personally, and globally, the gig was in aid of Bangladesh’s victims of famine and war—something which had been brought to Harrison’s attention by Ravi Shankar. When asked why he created the event Harrison dryly replied: “Because I was asked by a friend if I would help, you know, that’s all”.
The concert would feature an all-star line up of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Badfinger, and, of course, Ravi Shankar.
At the time of the event, Harrison was arguably the most successful Beatle. The singer-songwriter’s album All Things Must Pass had confirmed that he was equal to his bandmates in the Fab Four. As such, he enlisted the help of his friends to make the event a star-studded one. However, Harrison had originally intended to reunite with his former bandmates for the night and provide concert-goers with the first live performance from The Beatles in America since 1966, but it wasn’t to be.
It did nearly happen though for one particular Beatle. John Lennon had agreed to appear at the gig, even consenting to Harrison’s stipulation that Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono could not perform with him. But just a few days before the event Lennon left New York City in a cloud of contempt as he and Ono fell out over Lennon’s agreement with his former bandmate.
Next on the list was Paul McCartney. Macca almost outright refused to be a part of the benefit as he was still emotionally embroiled in the band’s breaking up and the nasty legal battles that went alongside it. He would later tell Rolling Stone about the opportunity to reunite The Beatles “George came up and asked if I wanted to play Bangladesh and I thought, blimey, what’s the point? We’re just broken up and we’re joining up again? It just seemed a bit crazy”. At least there was Ringo to the rescue. The Beatles drummer was more than happy to perform at the charity gig and was ready and raring to go in time for curtain up.
As well as welcoming a plethora of impressive performers, the coup of seeing Dylan on stage again was enough for most people to label it the best benefit concert ever, Harrison recruited none other than his friend, Eric Clapton. The former Cream guitarist had been working on his own solo career when Harrison asked him to lend a hand. It wasn’t the first time either.
Clapton had always provided Harrison with a place for respite as the tensions in The Beatles grew around George’s lack of opportunity to write songs. One he did write for the band is largely considered one of their best and it’s a song that even Clapton himself had a hand in, the brilliant ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
Harrison had been struggling to complete the White Album song and asked close friend Eric Clapton for help. Clapton turned up at Abbey Road Studio to do just that—but after a period of convincing. “Nobody ever plays on the Beatles’ records,” Clapton is thought to have said to Harrison with a moment of trepidation. “So what?” Harrison replied. “It’s my song.”
In a 1987 interview with Guitar Player Magazine, Harrison was asked whether it had hurt his ego: “No, my ego would rather have Eric play on it. I’ll tell you, I worked on that song with John, Paul, and Ringo one day, and they were not interested in it at all,” he said. “And I knew inside of me that it was a nice song.”
Harrison added: “The next day I was with Eric, and I was going into the session, and I said, ‘We’re going to do this song. Come on and play on it’. He said, ‘Oh, no. I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on the Beatles records’. I said, ‘Look, it’s my song, and I want you to play on it’. So Eric came in, and the other guys were as good as gold because he was there.”
Clapton provides a similar foundation for Harrison as he stood centre stage, at the very middle of one of the biggest invents in rock history at the time, singing one of his most cherished songs. It may well be one of Harrison’s best performances of the track and it is still capable of bringing any raucous house to a standstill with its touching sentiment and poignant delivery. If you miss out on Eric Clapton’s solo at the end then you’ve missed the point.
Watch below as Harrison and Clapton sing The Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
The concert would go on to raise nearly a quarter of a million dollars which was given to UNICEF to administer as they saw fit. Though by 1985 the Los Angeles Times reported that the final figure from books, CDs etc. amounted to nearly $12 million dollars being sent to help with the Bangladeshi people.
Sadly, much of the money was tied up in an Internal Revenue Service escrow account for over a decade as the organisers had not applied for tax-free status on the money.
The concert and it’s recording is still to this day amassing money for the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. The triple album release that immediately followed the event in the seventies hit No.1 in the UK and No.2 in the US and received the Grammy award for Album of the Year.