I heard today on the news that Richie Havens has died. I first heard his music on Somethin’ Else Again (1968) the cover has has him playing a sitar. He was always an unusual figure on the late 60s folk scene. The album was popular and made the Billboard charts. He was more hippie than revolutionary, though he had strong messages in his songs. In the midst of the riots of the Summer of 1968, the Black Panthers, Stax and Motown Records, he chose his own path and followed it. His opening performances at he 1969 Woodstock Festival are legendary lore. He was first on stage, and the other artists were stuck in traffic. Festival promoters told him to just keep playing until they arrived, which he did. He transformed the old spiritual “I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, vamping it into “Freedom”. The assembled crowd was ecstatic.
Havens was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the eldest of nine children. He grew up on the early 60’s coffee house scene in Greenwich VillageHe was blessed with a beautiful voice, and started singing in neighborhood doo-wop groups. Later he sang with a gospel group, the McCrea Gospel Singers.
Havens scored hits with covers of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and the Beatle’s “Here Comes the Sun”; in spite of his early success, he later dropped out of recording and made a living doing voiceover work; he did ads for McDonald’s and Budweiser, not really his preferred métier but it was reliable, easy, and brought home the bacon.
I interviewed Richie Havens in March, 1994; he had two sold-out shows at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. I’m glad I got to meet and speak with him, and plan to run it on an upcoming Rhythm Planet show, my new online home. It was nice to revisit this after almost 20 years, and I’m happy to be able to share it again.
Here he is at that famous opening performance at Woodstock. Sorry about the ads that precede it.