Richie Havens: The singer who set the Woodstock festival on fire

Andy Gill recalls how Richie Havens, who died this week, was a supremely talented musician who put his mark on an entire era

Richie Havens, who died at the age of 72 on Monday from a heart attack, was an iconic figure of the 1960s counterculture, forever defined by his performance as the opening act of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. When travel problems caused by the unexpectedly huge crowd delayed the arrival of some bands, Havens was required to improvise a set for three hours, igniting the event's atmosphere and lifting the audience's expectations on his shoulders with a typically fervent, impassioned performance.

A gentle, statuesque giant blessed with a soulful ochre baritone, Havens was a stalwart of the early Sixties folk scene in Greenwich Village, where he mingled with the likes of Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Stephen Stills. Unlike them, he was not a prolific songwriter, but he developed a thrilling mode of delivery based around intense, rhythmic strumming of bar chords, his huge hands enabling him to bend his thumb around the top of the guitar neck to access the bass strings, while his fingers fretted the other strings from below. In live performance, he would begin by building up for several minutes a feverish, accelerating momentum of a single chord, adding syncopated slashes to pull the rhythm this way and that, before launching into his signature tune "Freedom", an extemporised version of the blues spiritual "Motherless Child" which he transformed into a call-and-response chant guaranteed to carry even the most lukewarm audience along. His method might be best summarised by the title of one of his own songs, "Putting Out the Vibration, and Hoping it Comes Home".

Born in Brooklyn, where he sang both with gospel groups and street-corner doo-woppers, Havens originally moved to Greenwich Village during the beatnik era, scraping a living from poetry recitals and portrait painting until he picked up a guitar and started playing in folk clubs. He became the much-needed soul of the Sixties folk boom, bringing the open emotionality of gospel to a scene predominantly given to sententious moralising and po-faced traditional purism. For Havens, there were no boundaries: his albums could equally be filed under folk, soul, blues, pop, jazz and rock, and he was an early adopter of Indian instruments in raga-rock experiments such as the title-track of his 1968 Something Else Again album. By the following year's double-album Richard P. Havens, 1983, the instrumentation included sitar, tamboura, celeste, harp, flute, steel guitar, clavinet and ondioline.

While his live shows were built around the more rhythmic parts of his repertoire, such as "Freedom", "Run Shaker Life" and the anti-war anthem "Handsome Johnny" (which he co-wrote with actor Lou Gossett Jr), Havens's eclectic musical leanings swiftly brought him a deserved reputation as a singular interpreter of pop and folk material, notably transforming many Bob Dylan and Beatles songs in ways which helped expose their underlying soulful nature. His version of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" in 1971 brought Havens his only Top 20 success. His own "Handsome Johnny" would later be covered by reggae singer Peter Tosh, while Tosh's fellow Wailer Bob Marley would re-constitute Havens' "Indian Rope Man" as "African Herbsman".

In the early 1970s, Havens developed a second career as an actor, appearing in the original London stage production of the Who's Tommy, starring in the Shakespearean rock opera Catch My Soul, and playing alongside Richard Pryor in the 1977 movie Greased Lightning, about a black stock-car driver. He also became deeply involved in ecological issues, co-founding the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic museum in the Bronx, and the Natural Guard, encouraging children to adopt "a hands-on role in affecting the environment", through such small-scale strategies as redeveloping abandoned city lots as urban gardens.

Havens continued touring and recording albums – 25 in total – over the following decades, supplementing his income by providing vocals to commercials promoting coffee, cotton, trains and several television networks. In 2000, he experienced a late career boost when "Hands of Time", one of several songs he recorded with Groove Armada, was used on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise movie Collateral. Havens himself, meanwhile, extended his Greenwich Village friendship with Dylan by playing roles in both the dismal Dylan vehicle Hearts of Fire and Todd Haynes's adventurous 2007 Dylan "biopic" I'm Not There.

But it was Havens's appearance at Woodstock which cemented his reputation. "Everything in my life, and so many others', is attached to that train," he later observed. It was surely that iconic performance, captured in the film of the event, which subsequently secured his invitation to play at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, two years after receiving the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award. "Richie Havens was one of the nicest, most generous and pure individuals I have ever met," said his old Greenwich Village friend Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills & Nash. "He was very wise in the ways of our calling. He always caught fire every time he played." Noting that Havens died on Earth Day, the singer's official website marked his passing with the typically humble epitaph, "Say not in grief, 'He is no more', but live in thankfulness that he was".

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015