Obituary: Richie Havens / Folk singer opened at Woodstock

Jan. 21, 1941 - April 22, 2013


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Richie Havens, who marshaled a craggy voice, a percussive guitar and a soulful sensibility to play his way into musical immortality at Woodstock in 1969, improvising the song "Freedom" on the fly, died Monday at his home in Jersey City, N.J. He was 72.

The cause was a heart attack, his agent, Tim Drake, said.

Mr. Havens embodied the spirit of the '60s -- espousing peace and love, hanging out in New York City's Greenwich Village and playing gigs from the Isle of Wight to the Fillmore (both East and West) to Carnegie Hall. The folk musician surfaced only in the mid-1960s, but before the end of the decade many rock musicians were citing him as an influence. His rendition of "Handsome Johnny" became an anti-Vietnam War anthem.

Kidney surgery forced him to stop touring last year, but he moved beyond his '60s triumphs to record more than two dozen albums, act in movies, champion environmental education and perform in 1993 at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In 2003, the National Music Council gave him its American Eagle Award for his place in the nation's musical heritage.

For the baby-boomer generation, he will live forever on the stage of the Woodstock festival, which he had the honor to open because the folk-rock band Sweetwater, the scheduled opening act, was stuck in traffic. Mr. Havens and his guitarist and drummer arrived by helicopter. They had been scheduled to go on fifth.

Richard Pierce Havens was born on Jan. 21, 1941, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the city's Brooklyn borough, where he grew up. He was the eldest of nine children. His father made Formica tables for a living and played piano with various bands. His mother worked for a bookbindery.

He began singing with street-corner doo-wop groups when he was about 12. At 14 he joined the McCrea Gospel Singers. He was recruited by a street gang, and he dropped out of high school. He spent the rest of his life educating himself, and was proud of the results.

In 1971, he released the only single that would put him in the Top 20, a soulful rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." He also found success as a jingle writer and performer for Amtrak, Maxwell House Coffee and the cotton industry ("The fabric of our lives"). He acted in a few movies, including "Hearts of Fire" (1987), which starred Bob Dylan.

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