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George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh Featured Drug Trouble for Eric Clapton, Stage Fright for Bob Dylan
- Posted on Aug 1st 2011 3:00PM by James Sullivan
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"The fact is, George was never a frontman," recalls Voormann, who played bass in the band for the historic concert, which took place at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 1, 1971. "He was standing in front of the audience, talking to them, and you can see how uneasy he feels about that. It was not his thing. He just wanted to do it for his friend" -- sitarist Ravi Shankar, who'd informed Harrison of the human misery then taking place in the former East Pakistan. "That's why I think it is so strong."
Voormann was living in a cottage on the grounds of Harrison's new estate, Friar Park, a former nunnery in Henley-on-Thames, England, when Harrison agreed to help raise money and awareness for the people of Bangladesh. The concert came together in a matter of weeks.
"I was in from the first day, really," says Voormann, the longtime Beatles associate who drew the cover of the 'Revolver' album. "I saw George every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, going for walks, in the studio. He went to L.A. to get things together, and I came a little later."
In the States, Voormann traveled to Memphis with George's father, Harry Harrison, who wanted to see the American South. They stayed with singer Don Nix, whom Harrison asked to assemble a gospel choir for the show's backing vocals. Leon Russell put the band together while Harrison called in some of his famous friends, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. Though fans traded rumors of a full-fledged Beatles reunion, the idea was never really entertained, Voormann says. "If the whole band was together, we all wouldn't have been necessary," he says with a laugh.
"They had a hard time with Paul [McCartney] at that particular time. George stayed close with John, they all liked each other, but Paul was a little tricky at the time."
And there were other issues to contend with: Dylan, who'd been out of the spotlight for several years, was uncharacteristically nervous, and Clapton was suffering from heroin withdrawal. Meanwhile, Phil Spector, on hand to record the concert for a groundbreaking triple album, clashed with police backstage.
In the midst of the chaos hustled Pete Bennett, a native New Yorker (given name Pietro Benedetto) who'd helped promote the careers of a Who's Who of popular music, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. When Beatles manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, Bennett began working with the group and Apple, their record label. When the band broke up, he aided the former members in their solo careers.
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On the morning of the show, Bennett and Dylan knocked on Clapton's door, to no reply. They went down to the lobby, checked with the doormen, asked the guy at the candy stand whether the guitarist had come by to buy smokes. No Clapton.
Finally, they got security to open Clapton's door. The guitarist lay facedown on his bed, his girlfriend on the floor. Neither moved.
Bennett quickly called a nearby doctor; he'd given the physician tickets to take his grandchildren to the concert. The doctor, already en route to the Garden, stopped by the hotel and administered to the groggy Clapton. Make sure he eats an apple or an orange, he said.
Clapton made it onstage, but barely. "I let a lot of people down that night," he would write in his autobiography.
Once the concert began, Bennett had to find Dylan, who'd sequestered himself in a backstage men's room, where he was playing harmonica by himself. Dylan told the promoter that he had cold feet. "Maybe the people won't like me anymore, Pete," he fretted. But Bennett convinced him, too, to take the stage.
After the second set, Bennett led a private party to Jimmy Weston's nightclub, where the promoter climbed onstage to play drums alongside Keith Moon, with Spector on piano. Dylan wanted to know if there'd be any seafood.
Bennett says that Harrison was initially skeptical about filming the concert, so he'd smuggled in cameras and a director, Saul Swimmer (who co-produced the Beatles film 'Let It Be'). He told Harrison the cameras were from local New York news stations, he says.
The morning after, the promoter and the ex-Beatle went to breakfast. Harrison, relieved that it had gone well, lamented that they should've filmed it.
"Guess what?" said the brash PR man. "We filmed it."
Voormann remained close to Harrison until the former Beatle's death in 2001. George, he says, knew that his Concert for Bangladesh is often cited as the first rock 'n' roll benefit concert.
"He was aware of that, definitely," says Harrison's friend. "He was very proud about that."