For the second time this week, the music community has lost a key figure in its history. Richie Havens, a folk singer known for his soulful spin, his political leanings and as the leadoff act for Woodstock, passed away from a heart attack in his New Jersey home on Monday, April 22. He was 72.
Havens first came to prominence in the folk revival scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and while he was a natural standout for his towering frame (let alone being an African-American performing in a predominately white music scene at the time), the Brooklyn native rapidly made a name for himself with his unique open-string tunings and his blend of soul, folk and gospel elements. While known for penning original tunes like “Handsome Johnny,” Havens was equally known for his moving covers of artists like Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Leonard Cohen and others. Although his records rarely broke the Top 100 during his career, he was nevertheless an iconic figure in the folk community and a major influence on his peers, releasing dozens of albums over a 45-year musical career. A high point in his journey came when he opened the famed Woodstock festival in 1969 with a show-stopping set. (He was originally slated as the fifth performer, but was bumped up when traffic problems prevented earlier performers from setting up their gear.) A forty-minute set turned into two-and-a-half hours as organizers asked Havens to continue playing.
Despite telling Billboard Magazine a couple of years ago, “I don’t think I’m ever going to go away…at least while I’m alive,” Havens nevertheless officially retired last year, citing health problems. His publicist has announced plans for a public memorial for Richie Havens “at a later date.”
RIP, Richie Havens. You will be truly missed.