Richie Havens, Folk Singer Who Opened Woodstock, Has Died

Apr 22, 2013
Originally published on April 23, 2013 1:05 pm

Richie Havens once told NPR that he believed all music is folk music. Listen to Havens speak about Woodstock, Greenwich Village and why he loved performing in Neda Ulaby's remembrance, broadcast on Morning Edition, at the audio link on this page.

Richie Havens, a Brooklyn-born singer who sang gospel as a teenager, began playing folk music in Greenwich Village clubs in the 1960s and was the opening act at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969, died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Jersey City, N.J., according to his agent. He was 72 years old.

Havens had a long career as a musician, but if he had done nothing else, his performance at Woodstock would secure his place in American music history. Havens was the first performer to walk onto the stage at the festival; he sat on a stool and performed for nearly two hours — including an improvisation that incorporated the spiritual "Motherless Child," later called "Freedom." It became a highlight of the documentary about the festival and introduced him to audiences around the world.


As a black performer, he was a rarity in the folk-dominated Greenwich Village scene. His sandpaper soft voice and percussive guitar playing caught the ear of folk impresario Albert Grossman, who first signed Bob Dylan and helped create Peter, Paul and Mary. Havens released his breakout album, Mixed Bag, in 1967.

Havens went on to act in films and on television, and he continued recording for more than 40 years. He had a Top 20 hit in 1971 with a cover of The Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun" and released his last album, Nobody Left to Crown, in 2008. But it was onstage — with his guitar — that Havens was in his element. He toured constantly and in 2008 told NPR that he never planned his shows beyond the opening and closing songs.

"Many times people have come up to me after and they'd, they'd say, 'Richie, do you know what you did?' I'd say, 'What?' They'd go, 'I wrote these songs down for you to sing and you sang 'em all in a row.' That's the kind of communication happens, you know," Havens said. "It's like if you let the audience lead, then you are the audience."

Havens connected with audiences from stages large and small for more than 50 years.

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Richie Havens in 1969.
Jan Persson / Redferns/Getty Images


In 1969, the first musician to take the stage at the Woodstock Festival was a man named Richie Havens. He died at the age of 72, yesterday, after a heart attack at his New Jersey home.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this look back, beginning with Woodstock where Havens - with the help of a churning guitar and gravely voice - sang, and sang, and sang - longer than anyone expected, including him.


NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It was a moment Richie Havens could laugh about nine years ago. He told NPR many of the other now legendary musicians had gotten stuck in Woodstock's equally legendary traffic jam. Festival organizers panicked and would not let him leave the stage.

RICHIE HAVENS: Go back, sing more three more. There's nobody here yet to go on. You know, it was like go back and sing three more - this happened six times, so I sang every song I knew.

ULABY: And even one he didn't. Havens improvised "Freedom" before an audience of some 600,000 people.


ULABY: Richie Havens was born in Brooklyn. He grew up singing doo-wop on the streets and gospel at church. He and his friends were artsy kids who got labeled beatniks.

HAVENS: So we went to Manhattan to see what a beatnik was and found out it was us.


ULABY: Havens was enthralled by the poets, musicians and artists who were challenging American culture from Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the coffeehouse scene.

HAVENS: Just about every night, Kerouac was there and quite a few guys.

ULABY: Guys like Allen Ginsberg, who noticed the kids from Brooklyn scribbling in their notebooks at the famed coffeehouse, the Gaslight.

HAVENS: And finally he says, so what's in those books. And we said poetry, you know. He said get up there. So I ended up on stage in the Gaslight.

ULABY: Richie Havens attracted plenty of notice as a black musician in the largely white folk world.

HAVENS: Why not blues? why not jazz? Why not rhythm and blues? Well, it's because I believe all music is folk music.


ULABY: Riche Havens recorded some 30 albums but his biggest hit, from 1971, was written by someone else. He imbued it with his inimitable growly(ph) joy.


ULABY: Havens dabbled in the movies in the 1970s appearing alongside Richard Pryor in the comedy "Greased Lightning." And he was a funny mixture of pragmatist and idealist. He voiced commercials for McDonalds and Budweiser. But his environmental activism led him to found organizations that helped inner-city kids understand the ecology of the world around them. And Richie Havens took extraordinary pride in connecting with audiences and hardly missed a weekend on stage.

HAVENS: For me, spiritually, I am singing to the people I live on this planet with - all of them.

ULABY: And that was Richie Haven's calling. He remembered his grandmother asking him, as a child, what he wanted to be when he grew up.

HAVENS: And I said like to meet everybody in the whole world.


HAVENS: I think I'm doing it.

ULABY: Richie Havens told an interviewer in 1996, that in spite of a half century of performing, he never considered himself to be in show business. I, he said, am in the communications business.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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