21-1-1941 - 22-4-2013
Richie Havens, who marshalled a craggy voice, a percussive guitar and a soulful sensibility to play his way into musical immortality at Woodstock in 1969, improvising the song Freedom on the fly, has died at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 72. The cause was a heart attack, his agent said.
Havens embodied the spirit of the '60s — espousing peace and love, hanging out in Greenwich Village and playing gigs from the Isle of Wight to the Fillmore (both East and West) to Carnegie Hall. He surfaced only in the mid-1960s, but before the end of the decade many rock musicians were citing him as an influence. His rendition of
Handsome Johnny became an anti-Vietnam War anthem.
Kidney surgery forced him to stop touring last year, but he moved beyond his '60s triumphs to record more than two dozen albums, act in movies, champion environmental education and perform in 1993 at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
For the baby-boomer generation, he will live forever on the stage of the Woodstock festival, which he had the honour to open because the folk-rock band Sweetwater, the scheduled opening act, was stuck in traffic. Havens and his guitarist and drummer arrived by helicopter. They had been scheduled to go on fifth.
Havens started with Minstrel From Gault a few minutes after 5pm on August 15, 1969. He was originally supposed to play four songs, but other performers were late, so he played on. Havens played 10 songs, including Beatles songs. His impassioned improvisation was pitch-perfect for the generation watching him, most of whom saw it later in a documentary on the festival. His clarion encore, Freedom — made up on the spot and interspersed with the spiritual Motherless Child — sounded a powerful if wistful note.
"Freedom came from a totally spontaneous place," Havens said.
Richard Pierce Havens was born on January 21, 1941, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up. He was the eldest of nine children. His father made Formica tables for a living and played piano with various bands. His mother worked for a book-bindery.
In 1971, he released the only single that would put him in the Top 20, a soulful rendition of George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun.