April 22, 2013 – Richard Pierce Havens (January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013), known as Richie Havens, was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist. His music encompassed elements of folk, soul, and rhythm and blues. He is best known for his intense and rhythmic guitar style (often in open tunings), soulful covers of pop and folk songs, and his opening performance at the 1969 Woodstock. Richie Havens sang every song he knew when he was called in to open legendary Woodstock Festival in August 1969.
The Brooklyn born 6’6″ tall singer came out of a mixture of folk, blues, gospel and soul that he fine tuned during the sixties in New York’s Greenwich Village. A local celebrity he was originally scheduled as the fifth performer for the festival, but long artist travel delays forced him to play for 3 hours on end. Previously only regionally known, he came upon the world stage when he ran out of tunes and improvised his performance of ‘Freedom’ based on and incorporated into the spiritual ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child‘, made famous by Nina Simone.
Havens is often praised for his lyrical messages of peace and freedom as well as his fiery vocals and guitar playing. His early exposure to music was singing in doo-wop groups on the streets of Brooklyn at age 16.
The Brookyln-bred Havens moved to the Greenwich Village at the age of 20 to be a part of the thriving artistic scene in the ’60s. He was first recognized at clubs such as Cafe Wha? for his percussive guitar playing and unique voice. Havens toured for 45 years before kidney complications forced him to stop in 2012. In addition to many world tours, Havens has also released 21 studio albums.
Though initially more interested in visual art and spoken word, musical influences including Nina Simone, Fred Neil and Dino Valenti eventually inspired Havens to pick up a guitar. Word of Richie’s talent eventually spread beyond the Greenwich Village, catching the interest of manager Albert Grossman who helped him land a record deal with the Verve label. Havens released his first album, Mixed Bag, in 1967. His second studio release,Something Else Again came out just a year later and hit the Billboard chart.
Havens soon became a popular live act, playing festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Miami Pop Festival and others. His performance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival lasted over three hours and proved to be a big turning point for his career. After Woodstock, Havens started his own record label Stormy Forest, delivering six of his own albums on the label between 1970-1974. He was recognized for his original songs as well as popular covers of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Havens started reaching more mainstream popularity, appearing on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for back-to-back nights in front of eager audiences. He also dabbled in acting, appearing in the original stage production of The Who’s rock operaTommy in 1972 as well as the 1974 feature film Catch My Soul amongst other roles.
In keeping with his peaceful message, Havens was very active with charity work. In the mid-1970’s, he co-founded an oceanographic children’s museum called the Northwind Undersea Institute. This eventually led to the start of The National Guard, an organization that Richie helped start. The National Guard carried out a mission to help children learn about their effects on the environment. His charity work eventually won him the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in 1991. In 2003, he was given the American Eagle Award by the National Music Council for his role in America’s music heritage.
Havens continued to tour and release albums through the decades. Special appearances include a Madison Square Garden appearance in 1992 for the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary concert and a slot at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. In the jamband world, Havens appeared at festivals such as Mountain Jam and played The Sixth Annual Jammy Awards in 2006. He has also performed with the likes of Assembly of Dust, Groove Armada and The Preservation Jazz Hall Band.
Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fame said: “Richie Havens was one of the nicest most generous and pure individuals I have ever met, adding “when I was a young sprite in Greenwich Village, we used to have breakfast together at the diner on 6th Avenue next to The Waverly Theatre. He was very wise in the ways of our calling. He always caught fire every time he played.”
Richie Havens never recovered enough from a kidney operation in 2010 to tour again. He suffered a fatal heart attack on April 22, 2013 at age 72. An insight into the man behind the music was published in July of 1968 in Rolling Stone.