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Rock-and-roll benefit concerts: Music to UNICEF’s ears

George Harrison plays guitar at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh benefiting UNICEF’s programmes.

By Blue Chevigny

NEW YORK, USA, 7 December 2006 – UNICEF has started many trends over the years. One of the most influential – the rock-and-roll benefit concert – began in 1971, when George Harrison and Ravi Shankar teamed up with UNICEF to raise money for children and families fleeing the war in what was then East Pakistan.

The two musicians put on the Concert for Bangladesh, starring themselves and an all-star band at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“The concert was really historical. The New York Times called it historical, musically,” recalled UNICEF’s Head of Communications at the time of the concert, Jack Ling. With the likes of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton onstage, one can see what the Times meant. But the concert also made history by raising an unprecedented $10 million – making it the single largest such benefit ever held.

Concert for Bangladesh organizers George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at a news conference.

Music for UNICEF

In 1979 this model was replicated, but with a twist. To kick off the United Nations Year of the Child, the Music for UNICEF Concert was held in the UN General Assembly Hall itself.

Music for UNICEF starred the Bee Gees, ABBA, Rod Stewart and Earth Wind and Fire, among others. These artists, too, made history when they pledged to donate to UNICEF all the future royalties from the songs they performed that night.

Also in 1979, another former Beatle, Paul McCartney, and UNICEF organized a series of performances known as the Concert for Kampuchea (Cambodia) during the Christmas holidays in London.

Over the course of four nights, Mr. McCartney performed to sold-out houses with Queen, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders and the Clash, to name just a few. The shows had a decidedly British flavour and proved to be the biggest charitable benefit ever held in the UK.

Cover of the 1979 album from the Music for UNICEF Concert.

The legacy continues

The UNICEF concerts of the 1970s paved the way for a string of 1980s fundraisers such as Live-Aid, Band-Aid and USA for Africa. But it was UNICEF, beginning with Mr. Harrison and Mr. Shankar, that originated the concept of fundraising through rock-and-roll super-concerts for humanitarian causes.

While it has been a while since UNICEF has hosted one of these concerts, their legacy in raising funds and awareness is far from forgotten.

Early in 2006, Madison Square Garden inducted the Concert for Bangladesh into its ‘walk of fame’ on the 35th anniversary of the landmark performance. And Mr. Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison, launched the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF to carry forward the spirit of the 1971 concert.

“Today we’re facing humanitarian crises on a scale we’ve not seen before,” Ms. Harrison said at the time. “George had faith in UNICEF. He chose UNICEF above others.”

More than three decades after the first concert held especially to heighten awareness about issues of global magnitude, her words were still music to UNICEF’s ears.




7 December 2006:
UNICEF Radio correspondent Blue Chevigny takes a musical trip down memory lane to the 1970s benefit concerts that helped shape the history of both UNICEF and rock and roll.
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