Folk singer and Woodstock icon Richie Havens dies at 72
Prompted to play when other performers were tied up in traffic, Havens set tone for historic festival
He was kind, he was humble and he was a good musician, his friends all agree. While his career was long and far-reaching, Richie Haven was granted immortality by being the first performer to take to the stage at the historic Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York in August of 1969. It was all a matter of being in the right place at the right time, he insisted. Havens has died from a heart attack he suffered at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 72.
Richie Havens was originally slated to be the fifth act on the first day of Woodstock in August of 1969. Havens and two members of his band were pressed into service when the original opening acts were stuck in traffic.
Havens was originally slated to be the fifth act on the first day. Havens and two members of his band were pressed into service when the original opening acts were stuck in traffic.
Havens, guitarist Paul Williams and drummer Daniel Ben Zebulon went before the restless crowd and opened with his signature song, "Handsome Johnny." Havens gave a marathon performance with several encores to buy time for fellow performers still struggling to reach the venue. His performance of "Freedom/Motherless Child" was well received by the audience, who felt frustration of the current social status quo.
After playing three solid hours, Havens had run out of material. Tuning his guitar, he racked his brain trying to figure out which song to play next.
"I had sung all the songs I knew," he recalled in a 1993 interview, "but then I started thinking about the concept of freedom. I thought that we had made a mistake in thinking that freedom was something we needed to obtain instead of realizing that we already had it. That was my inspiration, and I started singing the word 'freedom' and went on from there."
Woodstock featured revolutionary performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
"Richie Havens was one of the nicest, most generous and pure individuals I have ever met," Stephen Stills said in a statement. "He always caught fire every time he played."
Among Haven's many albums, "Alarm Clock," featured Havens' biggest hit single, his cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." He was also known for his interpretations of material by Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Havens recorded television commercial jingles for companies including Amtrak and McDonald's. He is survived by three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
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