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RIP Richie Havens: The man who opened Woodstock

Written by Scott Mervis on .

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Richie Havens, who became a cultural icon after his unforgettable performance at Woodstock, died Monday morning of a sudden heart attack at age 72, according to his publicist.

Havens, born in Brooklyn, was a relatively unknown Greenwich Village folk performer when he was booked to play Woodstock in 1969 and asked to kill time while the other artists arrived. His nearly three-hour set included a passionate, improvised version of “Freedom” that became one of the enduring anthems of the festival and that generation.

“The misconception about the ’60s is that these kids were radicals and didn’t care about America,” he told me in 2002 interview, prior to a benefit performance at Hartwood Acres. “Not at all. We were putting American politicians’ feet to the fire for the first time.

“It started with the beatniks, reading poetry and singing songs, and they were called anti-establishment. They weren’t. They were pro-American. But the [politicians] radicalized it as anti-establishment, so they could continue to be the anti-establishment themselves. What we were really about in the ’60s was world peace. It was an American awakening.”

Through his career, which spanned more than 20 albums, he became known for interpretations of Bob Dylan songs and his soulful cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” -- all played with his rhythmic, one-finger, open-chord guitar style.

His acting roles included the original 1972 stage production of The Who’s “Tommy,” “Greased Lightning” with Richard Pryor in 1977 and the 1987 film “Hearts of Fire” with Bob Dylan.
In 1993, he performed at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, and in 2003, the National Music Council awarded him the American Eagle Award for providing “a rare and inspiring voice of eloquence, integrity and social responsibility.”

Along with his anthems of peace, justice and human rights, he was passionate about the environment, and in 1976, he co-founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum in New York City.

In 2008, he released his final album, “Nobody Left to Crown,” and the following year he performed at the celebration of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday. He retired from the road after a 2010 tour that included a final stop in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Lecture Hall.

In the 2002 interview, he joked that he circled the planet 31 times and performed at virtually every college in America three times.

“I have contact with whom I really wish to have contact with, which is everybody, the people I live with on this planet,” Havens said. “What I sing about is what affects me as a human being, hoping the knowledge of the song can be transferred for anyone else to use, to be comforted by or educated by, on every level. I sing songs that have changed my life. That’s all I’ve ever done.”

A statement from his publicist noted “While his family greatly appreciates that Richie’s many fans are also mourning this loss, they do ask for privacy during this difficult time. A public memorial will be planned for a later date.”

 

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