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The Woodstock Generation lost one of its favorite father figures this morning when renowned folk singer and activist Richie Havens died of a sudden heart attack at his home in New Jersey. He was 72.
The eldest of nine children, Havens was born in Brooklyn and began singing with The McCrea Gospel Singers as a teenager. Drawn to the Greenwich Village beatnik scene as a young man, Havens performed poetry and drew portraits for a living before turning to singing as a profession. He quickly became popular inside the Village folk clubs, signed a deal with Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, and starting recording long-playing albums in 1965.
Known as a powerful performer and gifted interpreter of contemporary material like Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Havens’ reputation skyrocketed thanks to a dramatic early evening appearance that opened the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on Aug. 15, 1969. His impromptu interpretation of the old spiritual “Motherless Child” (now and forever known as “Freedom”) brought Havens instant fame and made him an in-demand performer who went on to play everywhere from Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury and countless festivals and venues all over the world for nearly five decades.
“Richie Havens was blessed with a voice for the ages and a spirit to match,” said Jay Newland, the Grammy-winning producer who worked on Havens’ last album, 2008’s No One Left to Crown.
He recorded more than 20 studio albums — including fan favorites like Stonehenge, Mixed Bag and Alarm Clock — formed his own record label, Stormy Forest, and had his one hit single with a 1971 version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” A noted interpreter of familiar rock and pop tunes, Havens sang numerous compositions by Dylan as well as songs by The Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”) and The Bee Gees (“I Started a Joke”).
Besides his vibrant singing career, Havens worked in film and theater during the 1970s, including the original stage production The Who’s Tommy and musical films like Catch My Soul and Hearts of Fire. He also founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, an ocean-oriented children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx.
An eternally well-loved musical figure, Havens performed at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton and at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1999 and appeared in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan film-saga, I’m Not There, singing “Tombstone Blues.” He was the recipient of the National Music Council’s American Eagle Award in 2003 and collaborated with musical artists as diverse as The Electric Flag, Peter Paul & Mary, Peter Gabriel and the British electronic duo Groove Armada.
Havens retired from performing just one year ago, citing health issues.
“Beyond his music, those who have met Havens will remember his gentle and compassionate nature, his light humor and his powerful presence,” wrote a rep for the Havens’ family.
His four children and several grandchildren survive him, and a public memorial is in the works.
Watch Havens open Woodstock in 1969 below.
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