Enshrined in the memories of many music lovers and fans of Richie Havens is his performance at Woodstock in 1969, when, drenched in sweat, he strummed his open-stringed guitar and improvised on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” That then morphed into his other signature song, “Freedom.” To some degree, that quest for freedom, at least from the tyrannies of this plain, arrived Monday when he joined the ancestors at 72.
According to a bulletin from Billboard magazine, Havens was stricken with a heart attack at his home in New Jersey. Last year, citing health reasons, he announced he would no longer be touring. But during his 45 years on the road, on the stage and in films, Havens clocked a remarkable career and earned a treasured place among folk singers. His voice and guitar style, with an unorthodox use of his thumb, were unique and unmistakable. A good example of this can be readily found on You Tube, particularly his version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
Born Richard P. Havens in Brooklyn on Jan. 21, 1941, he aspired to be a writer and later devoted some years to drawing before taking his artistic leanings to Greenwich Village and immersing himself among the Beatniks and then with the next generation of hippies.
By 1967, his popularity as a singer reached beyond the village when he released his first album, “Mixed Bag,” with a rollicking version of “Just Like a Woman.” The reviews were not mixed and within a couple of years, he had five more albums to his credit. This celebrity and success did not go unnoticed and he was tapped to perform at the historic Woodstock festival, where he brought the huge crowd to its feet with applause during his five minutes on the stage.
His fame was given an additional boost when the film version of the festival was released. He became fully sanctioned as a top artist, commanding nightclub dates, television appearances, including “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
In 1970, he founded his own record company, Stormy Forest, and from his second album on the label, “Alarm Clock,” came “Here Comes the Sun,” placing him for the first time on Billboard’s Top 30 Chart. Hardly any club or concert date was complete without a rendition of this song or “Freedom,” which gained anthem-like status during the Civil Rights Movement.
Adding to his fame and coffers were a number of advertisement vocals, most notable for Maxwell House Coffee and the cotton industry theme, “The Fabric of Our Lives,” which also gave Aaron Neville a handsome paycheck. “The Fabric of Our Lives” would also be reprieved during President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, providing more exposure and more recording dates and global appearances.
Most recently, Havens was heard on the soundtrack to the movie “Collateral,” starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. He gave the highly intense film added energy with his driving, forceful style.
Havens was a furious performer who poured his soul into a song, and even when he stopped to deliver a soliloquy, he was no less passionate and sincere. His circle and cycle of songs will remain “unbroken.”
According to his close associates, a public memorial for him will be planned for a later date.