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".