Richie Havens, an American singer-songwriter with one of the most recognizable voices in popular music, died this morning of a heart attack. He was 72.
Born in Brooklyn, Richard P. Havens grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant community, the eldest of nine children. His father was a “by ear” piano who worked with a number of bands around the city, and Richie took to performing like a natural.
As he grew older, Richie helped organize a series of street corner doo-wop groups and, at 16, performed with The McCrea Gospel Singers. He sang doo-wop until the age of 20, at which point Havens left Bedford-Stuyvesant to seek out the artistic stimulation of Greenwich Village. Nina Simone had been a key vocal influence early on; Fred Neil and Dino Valenti were among the folk singers who have had an impact on Havens during this period.
Havens’ reputation as a solo performer soon spread beyond the Village folk circles. He recorded two albums worth of demos for Douglas International in 1965 and 1966, though none of the tracks were released until his first two albums caused a stir.
After joining forces with influential manager Albert Grossman, Richie landed his first contract with the Verve label, which released Mixed Bag in 1967. This auspicious debut album featured standout tracks like “Handsome Johnny” (co-written by Havens with future Oscar-winning actor Lou Gossett Jr.), Jerry Merrick’s “Follow” (later heard on the soundtrack to the hit 1978 film Coming Home), and a striking version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” that earned Havens his reputation as a premier interpreter of Dylan’s material.
Something Else Again (1968) became Havens` first album to hit the Billboard chart and pulled Mixed Bag onto the chart as well. That same year, Douglas International added instrumental tracks to his old demos and released two albums Richie Havens` Record and Electric Havens. Havens first co-production, the two disc Richard P. Havens, 1983 (Verve, 1969), gave fans a taste of his exciting live sound.
In fact, it was as a live performer that Havens first earned widespread notice. By decade’s end, he was in great demand in universities across the country. Richie played the 1966 Newport Folk Festival; the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival; the January 1968 Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall; the December 1968 Miami Pop Festival; the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, and, of course, the 1969 Woodstock festival in upstate New York.
Havens` Woodstock appearance proved to be a major turning point in his career. As the festival’s opening act, he held the multitudes spellbound for nearly three hours. Called back for yet another encore, he improvised a song based on the old spiritual “Motherless Child” that became “Freedom”, eventually reaching an audience of millions.
Meanwhile, Havens had switched labels to Stormy Forest (distributed by MGM) and delivered his Stonehenge LP in 1970. Later that year came Alarm Clock, which yielded the #16 single “Here Comes The Sun” (George Harrisons’ Beatles classic from Abbey Road) and became the first of his albums to reach Billboard’s Top 30. Subsequent Stormy Forest albums included The Great Blind Degree (1971), Richie Havens On Stage (1972), Portfolio (1973), and Mixed Bag II (1974).
Havens also branched out into acting during the 1970’s. He was featured in the original 1972 stage presentation of The Who’s Tommy, had the lead role in the 1974 film version of Catch My Soul (based on Shakespeare’s Othello) and costarred with comedian Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning (1977).
During the 70s and 80s, Havens’ work included a tour of Israel (by invitation of the Israeli Embassy), annual tours of Europe, and a non-stop US concert schedule. He continued to release albums as well, including The End Of The Beginning, Mirage, Connections, Common Ground, Simple Things and Now.
Increasingly, Havens devoted his energies to educating young people about ecological issues. In the mid-1970s, he co-founded the Northwinds Undersea Institute, an oceanographic museum for children on City Island in the Bronx. That, in turn, led to his founding of the Natural Guard in early 1990. Havens described the organization as “a way of helping kids to learn that they can play a hands-on role in affecting the environment. Children study the land, water, and air in their own communities and see how they can make positive changes.” Based New Haven, Connecticut, the Natural Guard now has chapters across the Americas, from Brooklyn to Hawaii to Belize.
April 1993 heralded the release of Resume: The Best Of Richie Havens (Rhino), a long overdue collection of his seminal late 1960s and early 1970 recordings which included such gems as “Here Comes The Sun”, “Just Like A Woman”, “The Dolphins”, “Handsome Johnny,” and “Freedom”. That was soon followed by another new studio release, Cuts To The Chase (Rhino), which featured the longtime concert staple, “Lives In The Balance”.
The summer of 1999 brought the release of They Can’t Hide Us Anymore (Harper Collins), a personal narrative recounting Richie’s days in Greenwich Village, reflections on the original Woodstock Festival and subsequent reunion concerts, as well as stories of friends and influences along the way.
Havens appeared as guest in the Peter Gabriel album, OVO, and Groove Armada’s Goodbye Country, Hello Nightclub. March of 2002 brought the long-awaited release of Wishing Well (Evangeline Recorded Works/Stormy Forest).
On his 2004 album Grace of the Sun, Havens featured Indian, Turkish and Argentine musicians, including Badal Roy (India), Jorge Alfano (Argentina) and Hasan Isakkut (Turkey).
Nobody Left to Crown, released in 2008, was his last album.