RAMBLIN' ROUND: The Concert for Bangladesh — and Oklahomans joining the cause

Publicity photoLeon Russell, who often recorded at his studio in Tulsa, provided music at the concert for Bangladesh.

One of the greatest rock concerts ever occurred on Aug. 1, 1971, when George Harrison held his Concert for Bangladesh in New York City — and two Oklahomans were at the center of it.

Another couple of Oklahomans were also involved, by playing on selected songs during the concert that is now considered the first-ever massive benefit rock concert event.

Harrison put together the concert as a benefit for Bangladesh, a nation where war, famine and natural disasters had led to a humanitarian crisis. The former Beatle became involved after his friend and mentor on the sitar, Ravi Shankar, asked him to do something to help alleviate the suffering of the people in Bangladesh — Shankar’s native land.

Once Harrison committed, he got in touch with many of his musician buddies. A hoped-for Beatles reunion did not occur, with both Paul McCartney and John Lennon declining to participate — but Ringo Starr, who like Harrison, was in the middle of launching a solo career, signed on as the drummer.

Harrison also convinced Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, the band Badfinger, Billy Preston, and an array of other musicians to join the cause — which is how our fellow Oklahomans became involved.

Leon Russell not only shared the stage at Madison Square Garden in New York City with some of the most influential rockers ever by playing with the backing band for artists such as Harrison and Clapton— he did a star turn of his own.

Russell, of Tulsa, is featured on the concert album sitting behind the piano, performing a medley that had become a mainstay of his own concerts — a pairing of the Rolling Stones song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Coasters’ 1957 hit, “Young Blood.” It’s a standout piece, not only on the three-record album issued at the time, but also on the theatrical film that followed.

He also did a duet of sorts with Harrison on Harrison’s song, “Beware of Darkness.” Russell had recorded a memorable take of “Beware of Darkness” on his album, “Leon Russell and the Shelter People,” which led Harrison to invite Russell to sing an entire verse of the song  in the midst of Harrison’s own rendition at Madison Square Garden.

Russell also contributed his distinctive piano playing while backing up many of the artists performing that day — with the exception of when he picked up a bass guitar to back the artist who made a special surprise performance to the Concert for Bangladesh.

At the time, Bob Dylan had made only one major concert appearance following a 1966 motorcycle wreck in rural New York — and that had been in England, at the1969 Isle of Wight Festival.

Although the Concert for Bangladesh was billed only as featuring George Harrison and Friends, few had imagined that the reclusive Dylan would have been among them. Even Harrison had not known for sure if Dylan would show up, until he saw him standing in the wings.

But there he was — dressed in a denim jacket and Levis, toting an acoustic guitar. Dylan eschewed the large backing band for his set. Instead, he was backed by a group consisting of Harrison on lead guitar, Russell, on bass, and Ringo, on tambourine. Dylan performed some of his most well-known sings while backed by the hastily-formed group, including “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” — with Russell playing bass on every song.

Russell wasn’t the only Oklahoman at center stage during the Concert for Bangladesh. One of the best-received songs at both the afternoon and evening shows proved to be Harrison’s take of his song from The Beatles’ White Album, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Clapton, who had been an unbilled guitarist on The Beatles’ song, joined Harrison onstage to deliver a rousing guitar solo. Harrison and Clapton weren’t the only guitarists onstage, though.

Norman-born guitarist Jesse Ed Davis is there with them. A University of Oklahoma graduate, Davis had also been invited by Harrison to play as a member of the concert’s backing band. The Native American guitarist is shown at about 1 minute and 29 seconds into the film and video of the song, standing directly behind Harrison and performing alongside the two musical titans.

Both Davis and Russell were also in the band backing Ringo when he sang his hit of the day, “It Don’t Come Easy.”

Ringo wasn’t the only drummer during the Concert for Bangladesh. Tulsa drummer Jim Keltner shared the percussive duties with Starr. And although Klaus Voormann, Harrison’s old friend from The Beatles’ pre-fame days in Hamburg, Germany, played bass on many of the songs, Tulsa bassist Carl Radle plucked the four-strings during Russell’s solo set.

The Concert for Bangladesh achieved its goal of raising awareness of the crisis in Bangladesh and also raised several million dollars to aid in humanitarian efforts to help alleviate the crisis.

It’s considered the model for the 1985 Live Aid Concert, for the Band Aid benefit, and all other major benefit concerts that followed.

The album won the 1973 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. A companion theatrical film — shown at the OKLA Theatre in McAlester —proved to be successful as well. 

It’s also an example of Oklahoma musicians’ involvement in yet another significant, historical musical recording.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com