"My friends call me 'The Rabbi,'" he laughs. "I'll never take it off!"
Said beard may be nearly all gray on the cover of his most recent release, Nobody Left to Crown, but the 67-year-old is hardly coasting on his laurels or image. The record is full of impassioned numbers which take on a variety of social and political issues, including efforts from his own pen ("Say It Isn't So," "Fates," the title track) and covers (The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance").
But to talk to Richie Havens — possibly the calmest-sounding man on the planet with his deep, mellifluous voice — is to only try and follow his thread of thoughts and Zen-like observations.
Ask about songs on the new record, and he reminisces about singing doo-wop on street corners in the '50s. A query about his career-making performance at Woodstock leads to observations about learning classical music through Bugs Bunny cartoons. And through it all, the non sequiturs fly, as well as thoughts on Frank Sinatra ("He had a real swagger to him"), Chuck Berry ("My airport buddy! I'd always see him coming and going") and even Rage Against the Machine ("I love those guys!").
Havens himself was initially an accidental music performer. Living in bohemian Greenwich Village in late-'50s New York City, he was scraping by doing street art and the occasional poetry reading when he found himself drawn in by the burgeoning folk music movement in the Village's coffeehouses.
"Here were these songs talking about the '20s and the '40s and the Dust Bowl and they were epics, they were history to me," Havens remembers. "But I thought I could never get on stage myself."
A friend was iconoclastic folk/blues singer Fred Neil.
"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!'"
As for his own development as a songwriter, Havens estimates that about 85 percent of his own tunes are penned in 90 minutes or less.
"I've never sat down specifically to write songs," he says. "I just caught the ideas that went through my head and then had to put them down [on paper]. In taxicabs...trains...buses...planes...then I just got up and sang them."
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 called Woodstock. 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.
During the ensuing years, Havens released numerous records, finding a measure of success with tracks like "High Flyin' Bird," "Handsome Johnny," "The Klan," and several Dylan and Beatles covers ("Just Like a Woman," "Here Comes the Sun"). He's also toured pretty much constantly.
But with his distinctive percussive sound, open tunings, fingerwork and that plaintive voice, Havens's "covers" are really more like entirely new interpretations.
"Believe me when I tell you this, I never thought I wasn't doing with my [performance] what the song was [supposed] to do," he says. "When I heard something like 'Eleanor Rigby,' I viewed her as someone in the way-back shadows of society, and I tried to get that [across]."
As for his current show, Havens mixes things up. "There are certain songs I have to do, or they beat me up outside!" he laughs. However, he does not write out a set list ahead of time.
Havens's Houston show will come just about a week before the swearing-in of Barack Obama, whose candidacy the singer supported. Asked if he ever thought he'd see a U.S. president with black blood take the oath of office in his lifetime, Richie Havens harkens back once more to the Age of Aquarius for his answer.
"You want to know something really weird? I was in Kent State doing a show and Bobby Kennedy was giving a speech there when he was running for president in 1968," he reflects "And he said that he believed within 40 years we'd have [a black] president! Now I can celebrate the fact that his words came true."