Richie Havens - Biography

By J Poet

Richie Havens became an international star in 1969, when he opened the Woodstock Festival with a set that was three hours long and culminated with “Freedom,” a song he improvised on the spot based on the traditional salve song “Motherless Children.” When the Woodstock film was released, “Freedom” became an international hit. Havens has been on the road ever since, known for his unique driving acoustic guitar style, soulful gravel throated vocals and freewheeling set lists. He’s written plenty of his own songs over the years, but is best known for his interpretations of other songwriters in particular Dylan and The Beatles. He’s also acted in films, started his own record label, written an autobiography called They Can't Hide Us Anymore and successfully collaborated with dozens of artists, most notably Groove Armada for “Hands of Time” featured on the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise film Collateral, Now 67, Havens still does hundreds of dates every year and is a tireless champion of human rights, ecological sanity and social responsibility. He was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in Sherborn, MA on April 12th 1991.


Richie Havens was born in 1941, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of nine children. His father was a piano player and multi-instrumentalist who introduced him to jazz, blues, swing and the R&B sounds that would soon be known as rock’n’roll.


He sang in The McCrea Gospel Singers and street corner do-wop groups as a boy and played guitar, wrote poems and painted. In the 60s he moved to Greenwich Village, to track down the beatniks and found himself in the middle of the growing folk explosion. He met Fred Neil, Dino Valente (writer of the hippie anthem “Come On People, Smile on Your Brother”), and Bob Gibson, who encouraged his guitar playing and singing. He soon became a regular in the folk clubs, known for his churning rhythm guitar playing and soulful vocal style. He cut a few albums for small indie labels before Albert Grossman became his manager and got him a deal with Verve. Mixed Bag (1967 Verve Forecast) introduced his interpretive skills on an eclectic batch of tunes including The Fugs “Morning Morning” and his own anti-war anthem “Handsome Johnny,” (co-written with future Oscar winning actor Louis Gossett Jr.) Something Else Again (1968) followed and featured the title track a seven-minute plus raga rock suite that was the soundtrack for many a hippie love-in. It grazed the bottom of the Billboard albums chart.


Havens played the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967 and the Isle of Wight Festival in Great Britain in 1969, but it was his performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 that made him a superstar. The stage crew has having problems setting up and haven’s 45 minute set stretched out into a three-hour plus tour de force crowned by “Freedom,” a song he improvised on the spot based on the traditional salve song “Motherless Children.” When the Woodstock film was released, “Freedom” became an international hit. Later that year havens started his own label Stormy Forest and Havens’ Richard P. Havens 1983 (1969 Verve) and Stonehenge (1970 Stormy Forest) did well, but his first post-Woodstock set, Alarm Clock (1971 Stormy Forest) jumped up the album charts to #30 and his cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” became a pop hit.


Stormy Forest released four more albums in the 70s: The Great Blind Degree (1971 Stormy Forest), Live On Stage (1972 Stormy Forest), Portfolio (1973 Stormy Forest), and Mixed Bag II (1974 Stormy Forest).


Havens maintained a grueling tour schedule and due to popular demand appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for two consecutive nights. (The only other guest ever booked for two nights, based on audience response, was Barbra Streisand.) He began his acting career with the 1972 stage production of the Who’s Tommy, and appeared in Catch My Soul (1974) and Greased Lightning (1977) with Richard Pryor.


Havens also was active in social causes. He co-founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, a children’s museum on City Island in The Bronx and The Natural Guard, an organization that makes kids aware of ecological issues and gives them hands on training in environmental projects.


In the late 70s Havens was signed by A&M and released End of the Beginning (1976 A&M), Mirage (1977 A&M). He continued touring in the 80s, but recorded only sporadically producing Connections (1980 Elektra), Common Ground (1983 EMI Italy), and Richie Havens Sings The Beatles and Dylan (1987 Rykodisc), a collection that recasts classic tracks with Haven’s soulful singing and arranging.


In 1993 Havens performed at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration and in 1999 his autobiography They Can't Hide Us Anymore was published. The title was a reference to a thought that came to Havens’ mind as he flew into Woodstock on a helicopter. His 90s albums include Now (1991 Solar), Resume (1993 Rhino) a collection of his best early work, and Cuts to the Chase (1994 Rhino) another bunch of classic 60s songs given soulful interpretations.


In 2000 Havens reactivated Stormy Forest and began remastering and reissuing his early recordings. In 2003 Groove Armada asked him to contribute lyrics and vocals to “Hands of Time” on their album Lovebox (2003 Jive Electro). The tune was featured on the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise film Collateral as well as Tony Scott’s Domino (2005). In 2007 Havens played Old Man Arvin in the Todd Haynes film I'm Not There and sang “Tombstone Blues,” which also appears on the I’m Not There Soundtrack (2007 Columbia). Havens released his last album, Nobody Left to Crown, in 2008 (Verve).


On April 22, 2013, Havens died from a heart attack. Somewhat poetically, it was Earth Day.

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