Friday Favorites 5/3/2013
At 5:00 pm on August 15, 1969, a mostly-unknown African American singer in a dashiki walked onstage in Woodstock, New York, and began to sing Minstrel from Gault. He had a gravelly voice, and a simple, percussive style on the guitar but his impassioned, soulful style riveted the crowd. He was scheduled to play four songs but when other performers were late, he played ten, including his version of several Beatles songs. His encore, Freedom … interspersed with passages from Motherless Child … was improvised on the spot and became an anthem for the Woodstock Festival. Shortly after Woodstock, I bought his second LP, Something Else Again. For a number of years, he was one of my favorite performers. He never achieved enormous commercial success in terms of hit records partly, I think, because his music was hard to categorize but also because he was most electrifying when seen live. On the Johnny Carson show, he was so well-received with audience applause continuing through the commercial break, leading Carson to invite him back the following night.
Richie Havens was born in Brooklyn, in 1941, the oldest of nine children. As a child, he performed with neighborhood doo-wop groups and as a teenager sang gospel. At twenty, he began hanging out in Greenwich Village, singing in the clubs and coffee houses, often billed as a folk/jazz singer. By the time he played Woodstock, he had already released five LPs which included protest songs he’d penned, like Handsome Johnny, as well as covers of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun (which was his biggest it on the charts). He continued to release recordings (and tour) through the early 2000s but once said, I’m not in show business. I’m in the communications business. He showed this through socially-themed songs, as well as his efforts to educate children about ecological issues, including the founding of the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx and Natural Guard, an environmental organization for children, to use hands-on methods to teach about the environment. He also frequently performed at charity events and benefits, also performing at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. According to Billboard Magazine, when he turned 70, Havens noted with pride that, I don’t feel one iota different from the day I walked into Greenwich Village. Everything I hoped for has happened. I never had a bad day on stage. I don’t think I’m ever going to go away…least while I’m alive. He passed away last month at 72 from a heart attack.
This is the improvised performance of Freedom from Woodstock which launched Havens’ career and made him one of the most recognizable (if not commercially successful) performers of the era.
and here is a performance of his biggest hit, Here Comes the Sun, performed live, forty years after Woodstock.
We lost a unique performer and a good man on April 22, 2013. And I lost a Friday Favorite. Rest in peace, Richie Havens.