Benefit concerts for the victims of natural — and, increasingly, human-made — disasters are now so commonplace that it somehow feels unnatural not to see one come together on the heels of a crisis. Concerts to raise money for survivors and entire communities after hurricanes (Katrina, Sandy, etc.), famines (Live Aid) and mass killings (9/11, Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon murders) as well as to raise cash and awareness around political and economic issues or organizations — Amnesty International; America’s family farmers; UNICEF — seem to have been around forever.
But they haven’t. In 1971, George Harrison cajoled, wheedled and gently browbeat a bunch of his famous friends — including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and others — and, in effect, brought into being what is widely acknowledged as the first-ever “star-studded benefit concert.”
In fact, the “Concert for Bangladesh” was two concerts: one in the afternoon and one in the evening on Sunday, August 1, performed in front of tens of thousands of paying fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The shows were meant to raise money for and awareness around a massive refugee crisis — spurred by civil war, cyclones, flooding and famine — gripping the South Asian nation of Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.
Neither Harrison (only 28 years old at the time) nor Dylan (who had just turned 30) had played in front of an audience of any considerable size for years, and up until the day of the concert itself it was not absolutely certain that Dylan would even show. He eventually did, of course, and both his performances were electrifying. Clapton, on the other hand, at just 26 years old, was enduring heroin withdrawal; but he sucked it up and played, and even managed flashes of brilliance, trading scorching guitar licks with Harrison on a mighty version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Starr was engaging and playful. Preston was a powerhouse.
Fans at both the matinee and evening shows, meanwhile — none of whom even knew what the lineup of talent was going to be, as the roster hadn’t been announced beforehand — went berserk.
While hellishly tangled legal troubles initially tied up much of the money raised by the concert, the two shows were nevertheless viewed by most observers as an audacious triumph — especially as a successful live album, a documentary film and more “ancillary” media followed in the months and years to come.
Here, on the anniversary of the landmark event, LIFE.com presents photos — none of which ran in LIFE magazine — from the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll benefit show: the Concert for Bangladesh.