Folk musician Richie Havens has died after suffering a heart attack this morning. He was 72. Havens is best known as one of the standout artists from the original Woodstock festival and film, though his career went far beyond just that career-making performance. He toured and recorded for over 40 years, landing 13 albums on Billboard’s Top 200. One of them, 1971’s Alarm Clock, even slipped into the Top 40, buoyed by the success of its big single, “Here Comes The Sun”—a trippy, acoustic cover of The Beatles song.
With its rhythmic guitar work and intimate sound, Havens’ version of “Here Comes The Sun” is a fairly good representation of his sound—a soulful sound that is even now uniquely his. In it you can sense Havens' fiery passion for the social justice and commonality he so often sang about.
Havens was born in Brooklyn, the eldest of nine children. He began performing in street corner doo-wop groups before venturing into Greenwich Village during the height of the beatnik movement. Eventually, word about Havens’ excellent performances spread among the folk scene there, and after making two records, he signed with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and landed a deal with Verve Forecast, the label that released 1967’s Mixed Bag. That record featured a track co-written by the actor Louis Gossett Jr. (“Handsome Johnny”) and a cover of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.” By 1969, Havens had recorded and released five more albums, with 1968’s Something Else Again being the singer-songwriter’s first real hit.
Havens’ Woodstock performance garnered him acclaim not just because it was great, but also because it was long. As the first performer at a fest full of not incredibly reliable acts, Havens ended up playing a three-hour set in large part because so many artists were delayed reaching Max Yasgur’s farm. He was called back for several encores and, finally out of material, even improvised a song that was later called “Freedom,” based on the old spiritual “Motherless Child.”
In 1970, Havens started his own label, Stormy Forest, which released six of his records, 1970’s Stonehenge, 1971’s Alarm Clock and The Great Blind Degree, 1972’s Live On Stage, 1973’s Portfolio, and 1974’s Mixed Bag II.
In 1972, Havens was featured in the original stage production of The Who’s Tommy. On film, he also played Othello in the 1974 movie Catch My Soul, and appeared in Richard Pryor’s Greased Lightning in 1977, Bob Dylan’s Hearts Of Fire in 1987, and a 1990 John Leguizamo film, Street Hunter. He also played “Old Man Arvin” in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, singing Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” with Marcus Carl Franklin and Tyrone Benskin.
Havens was also a composer and performer of jingles and promotional songs for the likes of NBC, CBS, ABC, Maxwell House Coffee, and Amtrak. Easily his most popular commercial song was “The Fabric Of Our Lives,” which is still used today to sell cotton.
In recent years, much of Havens’ time had been devoted to spreading socially conscious messages. In the mid-‘70s, Havens co-founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, a children’s museum in the Bronx focused on the ocean. That ultimately led to the creation of The Natural Guard—a sort of Greenpeace for kids. He also performed at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and 1999’s Tibetan Freedom Concert. In 2003, the National Music Council gave Havens the American Eagle Award for his role as “a rare and inspiring voice of eloquence, integrity, and social responsibility.”
Havens’ last record was 2008’s Nobody Left To Crown. Last March, he announced he wouldn’t be touring anymore, due to health concerns.