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April 24th, 2013

Legendary musician Richie Havens passes away at 72

Richie Havens

Richard Pierce "Richie" Havens (January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013) was a legendary American folk singer and guitarist.

Born in Brooklyn, Havens was the eldest of nine children. At an early age, he began organizing his neighborhood friends into street corner doo-wop groups and was performing with the McCrea Gospel Singers at 16 years old. At age 20, Havens left Brooklyn, seeking artistic stimulation in Greenwich Village.

"I saw the Village as a place to escape to, in order to express yourself," he once recalled. "I had first gone there during the Beatnik days of the 1950s to perform poetry, then I drew portraits for two years and stayed up all night listening to folk music in the clubs. It took a while before I thought of picking up a guitar."

Havens’ reputation as a solo performer soon spread beyond the Village folk circles. After cutting two records for Douglas Records, he signed on with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and landed a record deal with the Verve Forecast label. Verve released "Mixed Bag" in 1967, which featured tracks such as "Handsome Johnny" (co-written by Havens and future Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr.), "Follow", and a cover of Bob Dylan’s "Just Like a Woman".

Havens’ reputation as a live performer earned him widespread notice, but it was his appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival that proved to be a major turning point in his career. As the festival’s first performer, he held the crowd for nearly three hours, and he was called back for several encores. Having run out of tunes, he improvised a song based on the old spiritual "Motherless Child" that became "Freedom". The subsequent Woodstock movie release helped Havens reach a worldwide audience.

Following the success of his Woodstock performance, Havens started his own record label, Stormy Forest, and released "Stonehenge" in 1970. Later that year came "Alarm Clock", which included the George Harrison-penned hit single, "Here Comes the Sun". This was Havens’ first album to reach Billboard’s Top 30 Chart. Stormy Forest went on to release four more of his albums: "The Great Blind Degree" (1971), "Live On Stage" (1972), "Portfolio" (1973), and "Mixed Bag II" (1974).

Havens also branched out into acting during the 1970s. He was featured in the original 1972 stage presentation of The Who’s "Tommy", and appeared as Othello in the 1974 film "Catch My Soul". He also appeared in "Greased Lightning" alongside Richard Pryor in 1977. In 1987, he landed a role in the Bob Dylan vehicle "Hearts of Fire".

Havens increasingly devoted his energies to educating young people about ecological issues. In the mid-1970s, he co-founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx. That, in turn, led to the creation of the Natural Guard, an organization Havens described as "a way of helping kids learn that they can have a hands-on role in affecting the environment."

In July of 1978 he also was a featured performer at the Benefit Concert for The Longest Walk, an American Indian spiritual walk from Alcatraz to Washington, D.C. affirming treaty rights, as a result of legislation that had been introduced to abrogate Indian treaties.

In 2007, Havens appeared as Old Man Arvin in the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There. In a classic front-porch jam scene, he is shown singing the Bob Dylan song "Tombstone Blues" with Marcus Carl Franklin and Tyrone Benskin. Havens’ version of the song also appears on the I’m Not There soundtrack. Havens was invited to perform at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival opening ceremony. He played "Freedom" in tribute to his fan and jury president, Sean Penn.

In March 2008, Havens released a new studio album entitled, Nobody Left To Crown. The first single release was the country-tinged "The Key".

On March 20, 2012, Havens announced to his many fans on his Facebook page that he would stop touring after 45 years due to health concerns.

On April 22, 2013, Earth Day, Richie Havens died of a heart attack at home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 72 years old.

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