A soulful-voiced figure on the rock and folk scenes for more than five decades, Richie Havens rose to worldwide fame with a stirring appearance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, which led to a lengthy career as a recording and touring act. He started out as part of the Greenwich Village folk circuit in the early 1960s, where he slowly built a following with his earthy voice and passionate renditions of songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, as well as original material. After recording for Jimi Hendrix producer Alan Douglas and later the Verve label, Havens gave an extraordinary opening performance at Woodstock, where he improvised the stirring song "Freedom," introducing him to international audiences and establishing him as a popular live act. He also scored the occasional radio hit, most notably a cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" that reached No. 16 on the Billboard 200 in 1970. Though he was unable to maintain his footing on the pop charts, Havens continued to record and tour for the next three decades, while also contributing songs to television advertisements, acting in several feature films, and working on various environmental causes. Havens remained a symbol of the Aquarian ideals proposed at Woodstock through his powerful voice and commitment to enlightening and uplifting people through music, even after his death in 2013.
Richard Pierce Havens was born in Brooklyn, NY, on Jan. 2, 1941, the eldest of nine kids by African-American working-class parents. Music was a prominent part of his life from an early age, when Havens began forming doo-wop groups with neighborhood friends and then performing with a gospel act in his teens. When he turned 20, Havens crossed the East River and took up residence in Greenwich Village, where he soaked up the creative energy of the burgeoning Beatnik scene. He soon began frequenting clubs, reciting poetry before taking up a guitar and performing folk covers and original material. His rough-hewn but warm voice and unique style of guitar playing - he would rhythmically strum his instrument while using his thumb to play chords, bass notes or percussive elements - won him a following among Greenwich habitués, which in turn led to a contract with Douglas Records in 1965. Two years later, he signed with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, who brokered a deal for the singer with Verve Records' folk imprint, Verve Forecast. Havens' first record for the label, Mixed Bag (1967), featured covers of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, whose songbooks would provide him with some of his best material, as well as originals, including the anti-war song "Handsome Johnny," which he co-wrote with actor Louis Gossett, Jr. The album reached No. 18 on the jazz charts while also hovering at the lower end of the Billboard 200.
Havens would record two more LPs for Verve, including the double album Richard P. Havens, 1983 (1969), which rose to No. 80 on the Billboard albums chart, thanks to covers of Dylan, the Beatles and Donovan, as well as several live recordings. That same year, Havens was the first performer at the Woodstock music festival, where he mesmerized the crowd with a lengthy set capped with an improvised song called "Freedom," which drew inspiration from the spiritual "Motherless Child." Though audiences at the festival and in theaters viewing the "Woodstock" (1970) documentary were captivated by Havens' trance-like performance, few if any knew that the song was necessitated by the promoters' request for Havens to keep playing, as only a handful of the other performers had arrived at the festival location. Having run through his entire set list, he made up the new material on the spot, which won him worldwide acclaim. The success of his Woodstock performance granted Havens the cache to launch his own record label, Stormy Forest, which released his seventh album, Alarm Clock, in 1970. The record generated a Top 20 single with a cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," but Havens' tenure as a pop artist was short-lived.
Subsequent releases on Stormy Forest, including Live on Stage (1972) and Mixed Bag II (1974), rose no higher than No. 126 on the Billboard 200. However, he remained an internationally popular concert attraction while also experimenting with acting, appearing as Othello in "Catch My Soul" (1974), a film version of Jack Good's modern-day version of the Shakespeare play. Three years later, he landed a supporting role in "Greased Lightning" (1977), a biopic of pioneering African-American race-car driver Wendell Scott (Richard Pryor). He also continued to record albums until 1977, when he took a four-year hiatus from the studio to concentrate on his career as a touring artist. During this period, Havens also campaigned on behalf of environmental education for children, co-founding the Northwind Undersea Institute in 1976. Havens divided his musical career in the 1980s between concerts and recording musical tracks for a variety of television advertisements, including spots for NBC, CBS, Amtrak and Maxwell House Coffee. Towards the end of the decade, he returned to the albums chart with Simple Things, a collection of new material and covers that reached No. 173. The late '80s and early 1990s saw a flurry of releases by Havens, who signed his first contract with a major recording company in over 15 years when he joined Epic's roster in 1991. Major performances, including the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton and a Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1999, followed, as did The Natural Guard, a nationwide environmental education program.
In 2000, Havens collaborated with electronic music act Groove Armada for the single "Hands of Time," which appeared on the soundtracks for the thrillers "Collateral" (2004) and "Domino" (2005). Havens also published his autobiography, They Can't Hide Us Anymore, in 2000, which was followed by two well-regarded albums, Wishing Well (2002) and Grace of the Sun (2004). He returned to acting in 2007 for "I'm Not There," Todd Haynes' meta-biopic of Bob Dylan which featured Havens' performance of the legendary singer's "Tombstone Blues." Havens returned to Verve Forecast for the 2008 album Nobody Left to Crown, which featured covers of songs by the Who, Jackson Browne and Peter Yarrow, as well as original material. The following year, he appeared alongside John Legend, The Roots, Angie Stone and TV on the Radio in "Soundtrack for a Revolution" (2009), a documentary about the civil rights movement that featured new versions of classic songs associated with the freedom movement. Havens returned to his regular touring schedule for the next three years before health issues forced him to retire from performing in 2012. He died of cardiac arrest the following year on April 22, fittingly enough on Earth Day, prompting an outpouring of tributes for the revered folk icon.