Farewell to Richie

Havens at Woodstock (courtesy of Elliott Landy)

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to write about this earlier, but still felt very impelled to do so.

On Sunday, the music world lost one of its greatest and most prolific folk singers, Richie Havens. He died of a heart attack at his New Jersey home at age 72.

Despite influencing scores of singers and songwriters for years to come, Havens was best known for opening the infamous Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 with a song he basically improvised: “Freedom.”

Check out his memorable performance here.

Of course, any young people in the crowd likely recognize this song because Quentin Tarantino included it in the soundtrack for his 2012 film Django Unchained.

Havens was born Richard Pierce Havens in Brooklyn, New York in 1941—oddly enough only a year before my father, but that’s neither here nor there.

In his 72 years, Havens performed in doo wop groups on street corners, ran with a street gang, dropped out of high school, read poetry at Beatnik clubs, drew portraits for customers, learned to play the guitar—and developed his own method of tuning it so he could play the chords with his unusually large hands—signed a record contract, cut a number of tracks on the Verve Forecast label and ended up as the opening act at a certain three-day festival of music and love.

You know the one I mean.

The funny thing is that everything I just mentioned covers only the first half of Havens’ life, more or less. By the time it was all said and done, though, he had released 25 albums—the last one being 2008’s Nobody Left to Crown—appeared in several movies, collaborated with other artists (like Groove Armada on the song “Hands of Time”), toured endlessly and even performed for presidents, as he did for Bill Clinton at his 1993 inauguration.

Richie a bit later in life (courtesy of Bobby Bank/WireImage)

In other words, he filled 72 years with as many memorable experiences and performances as possible. And what a life it was.

For me, the introduction to Richie Havens’ music and message—“Peace and love, baby”—came in high school. I was a blossoming neo-hippie exploring his roots in the “Summer of Love,” convinced I had been born too late and determined to keep the Peace Train rolling. I obviously missed Woodstock—my own birth coming a number of years later—and thankfully missed all the fun at the Altamont Music Festival for the same reason. So the first time I saw Havens perform was on a grainy old VHS video tape, the original film Woodstock. And yes, it was the song “Freedom” that first caught my attention.

If you missed the link to this performance before, take a look-see. The link is near the top of this post.

No matter how you slice it, Richie Havens was a talented musician, a skilled songwriter and one hell of a performer. And on a special day in 1969—one in which he was asked to open a packed music festival and to kill three hours while other performers struggled to make it to the site—Richie Havens made music history.

Peace and love, Richie. I hope your next journey is as exciting as the last!

Posted on April 24, 2013, in Music, Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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