Richie Havens, the gentle-giant bearded folksinger who became a fiery voice of protest in the 1960s and christened the 1969 Woodstock Festival with a three-hour set that was later highlighted in the 1970 movie Woodstock, passed away earlier today. He was 72 and died of a sudden heart attack at his home, according to an email from PR agency LiveLoud.
"While his family greatly appreciates that Richie's many fans are also mourning this loss, they do ask for privacy during this difficult time," the statement said.
A native of Brooklyn, known for his finger-picking style and open tunings, Havens became part of the same Greenwich Village folk-music scene that included Bob Dylan and eventually changed the course of rock history, if not the entire '60s, supplying a social conscience to music that had previously been about dancing, surfing and chasing girls.
Emerging out of clubs like Cafe Wha?, he inspired Verve Records to make him the flagship artist of its new folk division. Albums that followed included the legendary Mixed Bag, follow-up Something Else Again, and the greatly expanded instrumental palette of RIchard P. Havens, 1983, a double album that included four Beatles covers.
Post-Woodstock, Havens recorded steadily until the late '70s, which his albums became more sporadic. He made a comeback in earnest with two new albums in 1987, Simple Things and Sings Beatles & Dylan.
After that, he continued recording sporadically but never stopped touring. His last original album was 2008's somber Nobody Left to Crown, which mixed his originals ("We All Know Now") with covers of Jackson Browne ("Lives In the Balance") and the Who ("Won't Get Fooled Again"). My Own Way, released in 2012, overdubbed instrumental tracks onto solo tracks recorded around the time Havens signed to Verve.
Havens retired from the road three years ago, but talked to the Houston Press before a show at Dosey Doe in January 2009. He explained to our Bob Ruggiero how Fred Neil, the Oscar-winning singer-songwriter responsible for Midnight Cowboy theme "Everybody's Talkin," urged Havens to pick up a guitar himself.
"Freddie saw that I was singing along in the audience at his shows, and finally told me, 'Here, take my damn guitar home and learn how to play!'" Havens laughs. "I didn't know what to do with it or even how to tune it. Three days later, I came up to him and starting singing his songs. And he said, 'Damn! I just gave you my job!'"
He also told Ruggiero this about his iconic Woodstock performance:
Havens was not well known to a general rock audience when he was asked to play in 1969 on the opening-day bill of this little outdoor festival in upstate New York. His public profile increased dramatically with the release of the movie, in which he gives an intense, riveting performance of "Freedom."
With eyes clenched in concentration, hands strumming furiously and sweat soaking his orange caftan, it remains the most indelible image that people have of him -- although it happened completely by accident.
Havens wasn't scheduled to go on first, but was asked to perform early because his stage show (him with acoustic guitar and two acoustic accompanists) was a fairly simple setup. Also, some of the other acts had, um, indulged in certain pharmaceutical delights and thus were in no shape to put on a show.
Havens did his 45-minute set and was ready to leave when organizers asked him to stretch it out...again... and again. Almost three hours later and with nothing left to play, he began to improvise, strumming hard and chanting the word "freedom!" while incorporating snippets from the blues standard "Motherless Child" and others.
His sheer passion -- captured by a film camera that seems planted at his feet gazing up -- brought the crowd to its feet. Ironically, according to Havens, his manager, Albert Grossman (who also helmed the careers of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin), did not want anything filmed since there was no extra pay involved.
Fortunately, that didn't happen.
"You've got to understand, up until that point I had never actually seen myself perform, so it was very eye-opening," he says.
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RIP Richie. Read Ruggiero's entire article here. A public memorial is planned at a later date, LiveLoud's statement added.