Richie Havens was one of the most memorable performers of any era. He was born for the concert stage, but even his live recordings don’t quite capture the magic in his performances.
Richie Havens, like Joe Cocker, blossomed as performers at Woodstock. Tragically, both died a year apart, two soulful voices silenced.
Havens had a nearly five decade career, starting out in folk clubs in New York City. Woodstock proved to be a big coming out party for Havens, literally. In fact, he was the first performer to take the stage at Woodstock and was asked to play long after his time-frame because other performers were not ready to follow. Concert goers got an extra helping of Havens and his two accompanists. They played for three hours, playing every song he knew. The last song he played was one he developed on the spot, “Freedom,” based on the old song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Havens wasn’t just a folky, he blended soul, pop, jazz and R&B together. He often played solo, just with his guitar, pounding rhythms as he played, a trademark of his expressive style.
Besides a big solo career, Havens was also a strong collaborator with other musicians. Most of us think of him with a big expressive voice, but he could dial it back and convey emotion in subdued performances.
Two of my favorite Haven performances.
“How Can I?” From the Steve Hackett album Please Don’t Touch.
“The Great Mandala” A duet with Peter Yarrow.
Havens did a lot of commercial and jingle work, where you heard his voice but probably didn’t know it was him. Havens had many sides, he wrote poetry and painted, and he did some acting.
A thoughtful man, Havens did more than talk about causes he believed in. Concerned about ecology and the environment, he founded programs specifically to educate young people and harness their energy for action.
He was active in peace movements and promoting Native American causes. He played the Tibetan Peace Concert in 1999 before over 100,000 people. Havens also performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
Haven’s parents were of Caribbean and Native American heritage so he grew up in a mixture of musical styles, which he used for both his original compositions and his interpretations of other material. Like Joe Cocker, he covered Beatle songs with very original arrangements. “Here Comes the Sun”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” are the best known.
Havens stopped performing in 2012 for health reasons, but in the new millennium he was finding new audiences as he teamed up with younger artists and his music was finding its way into film.
One of the things that still fascinates me about Havens was how wonderful a guitarist he was. He used a variety of tunings and rhythms to get the most emotional sound from his guitar, to compliment his rich voice. He was a one-man band, and a gentleman of the world.
As Woodstock approaches its 50 year anniversary, go back and re-discover some of those incredible performances and musicians. His song “Freedom” still has a lovely ring to it.