Singer and guitarist Richie Havens died today of a heart attack. He was 72.
Born in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he would make a name for himself in the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.
But Havens came to international acclaim with his performance as the opening act at Woodstock in 1969. With Tim Hardin overwhelmed by stage fright and several other acts not having yet arrived, Havens performed for over three hours until he had sung his entire discography. Then he came up with a song on the fly – “Freedom” and it would become his signature song.
The irony here is that Havens spent most of his career as an interpreter of song. Havens covered the likes of The Beatles (“Here Comes The Sun”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”), Bob Dylan (“Just Like a Woman”, “All Along The Watchtower”) and Billie Holliday (“God Bless The Child”). What made Havens’ renditions so memorable were his unique voice and his open guitar tuning.
On a personal note, I had the opportunity to see Havens perform in concert six times – more than any other performer. I first saw Havens perform in May 1999 at a seedy club beside a house of ill-repute on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Whether Havens was performing at an outdoor festival, a museum or next to a whorehouse, his warmth shone through both onstage and offstage. Havens genuinely enjoyed talking with people and often spent at least an hour or more after his shows conversing with fans. I can attest to this and one of my fondest memories was reciting a poem I had written for him following a show at Club Passim in Cambridge back in 2001. He responded with a big hug.
I last saw him perform at Scullers Jazz Club here in Boston in February 2005.
At each of his concerts, he would tell his audience, “I’ve been on tour since December….1967.” This never failed to illicit laughter.
Havens stopped performing several years ago when his health began to deteriorate.
The stage has lost one its finest players. Let me bring him out for one last encore.
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