Artists sometimes get a bad rap — derided as bad influences on the nation’s youth and blamed for any number of society’s ills. But when tragedy strikes, they’re often the first to open their hearts and wallets. In countless situations — including last year’s hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico — artists of all stripes have rallied together for the common good. The following are just a handful of examples of rockers stepping in and stepping up via benefit rock concerts. As for Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, you could write an entire article devoted to his humanitarian efforts alone.
1. The Concert for Bangladesh (1971)
George Harrison put his considerable clout behind The Concert for Bangladesh, which provided relief for refugees devastated by civil war, cyclones, and famine. Fronting a supergroup of friends (Ravi Shankar, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston…), Harrison performed two concerts at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Aug 1, which were later released as a triple album. Legal wrangling tied up proceeds for much of the ’70s, but the concert, live album, and documentary film were seen as triumphs and became the template for similar efforts in the decades that followed.
2. Live Aid (1985)
This massive dual-venue concert to raise funds for famine victims in Ethiopia grew out of the 1984 charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Bob Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Ure were the driving forces behind both the star-studded single and the concert. 75,000 packed into London’s Wembley Stadium and 100,000 into JFK Stadium in Philadelphia; many more were glued to their sets at home to watch simulcast performances by Madonna, Run DMC, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and dozens more. Phil Collins flew the Concorde to perform in both London and Philly on the same day. Highlights included sets by U2 and Queen, and a George Michael-Elton John duet of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
3. The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness (1992)
In April of 1992, it was fitting for Wembley stadium, the site of so many iconic Freddie Mercury performances, to host this tribute to the late Queen singer, who had died from complications due to AIDS six months earlier. U2, Metallica, Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses performed sets, and the surviving members of Queen played house band to an A-list lineup including Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Elton John, Liza Minelli and George Michael (who wowed with “Somebody to Love”). This also marked producer and former Spider From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson’s last-ever onstage performance, doing “All The Young Dudes” and “Heroes” alongside David Bowie and Ian Hunter.
4. Concert for New York City (2001)
Held just weeks after the world’s deadliest terrorist attack, this benefit for first responders and victims’ families featured stars from music, movies, sports, and politics. Hometown favorites Jay Z, Adam Sandler, and Howard Stern helped rouse the Garden crowd, but the set by The Who—their last with bassist John Entwhistle—probably resonated most with the many attendees. Firefighter Mike Moran, who lost his brother John in the attack, grabbed a mic onstage to tell Osama Bin Laden he could “kiss my royal Irish ass!” It was a simple but powerful moment that summed up the city’s defiance in the wake of such a horrific attack.
5. A Concert For Hurricane Relief (2005)
This concert and telethon was broadcast nationwide on NBC just days after the deadly storm that left several Gulf Coast regions devastated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The broadcast featured performances by Tim McGraw, New Orleans natives Aaron Neville, Wynton Marsalis and organizer Harry Connick, Jr. But the main thing many remember is when Kanye West deviated from the script to call out media characterizations of black families as “looters” while white families were “searching for food.” His seven-word critique of President George W. Bush (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”) not only went viral but became the title of a hip-hop song. Whatever your politics, take note: the benefit raised $50 million.
Photo of George Harrison, Ravi Shankar for Evening Standard/Getty Images