Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Folk Music “a Real Gas”
“I really sing songs that move me,” Richie Havens remarked to the Denver Post. “I make a distinction between me and a lot of my friends. I am not in show business and never was. I’m in the communications business. That’s what it’s about for me.” Best known for his marathon performance at the legendary 1969 rock festival Woodstock, Havens has survived numerous shifts in musical fashion and continued to reach audiences with his rhythmic guitar strumming and husky, impassioned vocals. In addition to numerous recordings on various labels, Havens has been responsible for several ecological education projects, sung jingles on award-winning television commercials, acted in films—and still found time to sculpt. Despite the intensity of his performances, Havens once told Down Beat, “Music is not my whole world and I don’t think it ever will be.”
Havens was born in 1941 and grew up the oldest of eight siblings. In an interview with Joseph D. Younger for Amtrak Express, the performer-activist called himself “very fortunate to [have grown] up in Bedford-Stuyvesant [a Brooklyn neighborhood] when everybody lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I grew up with Italians, Irish kids with brogues, Poles, Czechoslovakians—everybody. At that time, it was a wonderful melting pot. I grew up with the world.” Even so, he told Down Beat’s Chris Albertson, “I don’t think I was ever a Brooklynite,” indicating that he eschewed the fighting and crime engaged in by other neighborhood kids. Instead, he became involved in music at a young age, singing with doo-wop groups—always, he noted to Younger, providing “backgrounds, since I was about 12. I never thought I’d end up singing the words.” At age 14 he performed with Brooklyn’s McCrea Gospel Singers.
Folk Music “a Real Gas”
In his late teens Havens migrated to Greenwich Village where he worked as a portrait artist, roaming the clubs to drum up business. “I made a lot of money until I started singing,” he quipped to Albertson. After a couple of years, during which he struggled unsuccessfully to get his music career in motion, Havens discovered folk music, which was then in full flower, and “that was the end,” as he described it in a 1968 interview with Sing Out! Folk, he said, “gave me the composition of myself, all the things I’d thought about, when I was a kid. All the things I knew were true started happening in folkmusic. It was a real gas.” He soon found himself on the grueling schedule of the journeyman musician. “I remember I was working with a trio once at the Bizarre, doing five sets a night,” he recalled, “and we were doubling around the corner at the Why Not?.... There
For the Record…
Born Janurary 21, 1941, in Brooklyn, NY.
Worked as portrait artist; became folksinger, New York City, 1959; released debut album, A Richie Havens Record, Douglas Records, 1965; signed with Verve Folkways, 1966, and released Mixed Bag, 1967; performed at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967, Woodstock music festival, 1969, and Isle of Wight festival, 1970; signed with A&M, released The End of the Beginning, 1976; signed with Elektra and released Connections, 1980; released Simple Things, RBI, 1987 (reissued on own ELO label); released retrospective Résumé, Rhino, 1993; performed at inauguration Earth Ball and Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert, both 1993. Appeared in rock opera Tommy, London, 1972, and in films Greased Lightning, Catch My Soul, and Hearts of Fire. Wrote and recorded commercial jingles. Helped create North Wind Undersea Institute and Natural Guard and worked with Songwriters and Artists for the Earth.
Selected awards: Clio awards for work in McDonald’s and cotton industry commercials; gold records for Alarm Clock and The Great Blind Degree, both 1971, and Richie Havens on Stage, 1972.
Addresses: Record company —Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Other —Songwriters and Artists for the Earth, P.O. Box 7304, Culver City, CA 90233.
we were doing three sets a night, and I was doing three sets at the Fat Black Pussycat by myself! We were doing about ten sets a night... for weeks at a time! It was crazy.”
When he began playing guitar, Havens told Frets magazine, “I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing,” yet he ascertained that through his “mistakes” he was able “to make personal music.” He found it awkward to play guitar with standard figurings because of his outsized hands. As a result, he began using an open D tuning, barring all or most of the strings with his thumb from above and strumming ferociously. “A person looking at him might say he was just flailing about,” commented guitar specialist Barry Olivier in Guitar Player, “but the way he flailed about was so musical, and it went perfectly with what he was portraying. He’s a good example of not having to be a technically perfect guitarist in order to come across.”
Although he signed a recording contract with Warner Bros, in 1962, Havens couldn’t manage to get a record completed, and his deal lapsed. After releasing a couple of obscure albums in the mid-1960s, he finally signed with Verve Folkways (later Forecast) in 1966; his debut on that label, Mixed Bag, followed in short order. It featured such noted Havens fare as the antiwar song “Handsome Johnny,” which he co-wrote with actor Lou Gossett, Jr., and his distinctive version of the Bob Dylan classic “Just Like a Woman.” His appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival heightened the singer’s visibility. 1968 saw the arrival of his sophomore album for Verve, Something Else Again, which was highlighted by such diverse instrumentation as flute and sitar.
Havens’s performance at Woodstock was scheduled well in advance, but nothing could have prepared him for the circumstances he found there. Because of traffic problems, none of the early acts arrived on time, the concert was nearly three hours late, and Havens was the first performer to appear before the restive throng. “I thought, ’Jeez, they’re gonna throw beer cans at me because the concert’s late,’” he recollected in Rolling Stone. “So I did a little fast talking, a little rap, and then I did a nearly three-hour set, until some of the others [in his band] finally showed up.” But it was as an unplanned encore that Havens’s most legendary performance came about: “The last thing I did was ’Freedom,’ which I made up right there on the spot because I didn’t have anything left to sing,” he confessed in Amtrak Express. “It was an amalgamation of two old hymns, and my feeling of freedom to enjoy what we had. ’Freedom’ came from a totally spontaneous place.”
In 1971 Havens released the only single that would put him in the Top 20, a soulful rendition of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” For the most part, however, he maintained a loyal following without huge sales. In addition to recording consistently throughout the 1970s, Havens helped establish the North Wind Undersea Institute in New York, an oceanographie installation for young people. He also began acting, starring in such films as Greased Lightning and a modern version of Othello called Catch My Soul, as well as appearing onstage in the 1972 London debut of Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy. In 1976 he changed record labels, signing with A&M, but the association lasted for only two albums, Havens joining the Elektra roster in 1980. His recorded output in the ensuing decade was fairly slight. He moved to the small label RBI for his 1987 release, Simple Things ; when RBI folded, he started his own label, ELO, on which the album was reissued. In 1987 he also co-starred with Bob Dylan in the film Hearts of Fire.
In the mid-1980s Havens heralded a return to prominence of the style that had made his reputation. “There’s a big acoustic renaissance going on,” he told Billboard’s Mike Hennessey, “and the music scene is becoming reminiscent of the late ’50s and early ’60s.” He reminded readers that despite a lack of platinum albums, the old folkies had weathered many a storm. “The record companies say we’re not commercial, but we’re still working regularly. And I survived five presidents while I was with MGM [Verve’s parent company].” Havens’s predictions about this “renaissance” may have been a bit premature, but he was correct in declaring that folk would return to the spotlight. Although he continued to work in film and as a commercial-jingle writer and performer, Havens saw the legacy of his career gain renewed recognition as the Woodstock generation began to control the nation’s cultural perspective.
Havens made the media rounds in 1990 as founder of the Natural Guard, an ecological organization designed to get young people involved in environmental work in their own neighborhoods. He expressed his goal to the Los Angeles Times: “to bring up a generation with real information about the environment, for the first time in history.” He also received his due for the jingles he had been performing, winning two Clio awards; indeed, his voice became such a winning presence on commercials that an unknown but persistent imitator of his vocal stylings was able to get fairly regular work. In 1991, he released the album Now. Lynn Van Matre of the Chicago Tribune called it “one of his most appealing efforts in recent years.”
The following year, Havens performed “Just Like a Woman” at the 30-year anniversary tribute to Bob Dylan held at Madison Square Garden; a recording of the concert would appear to enthusiastic reviews in 1993. He also played that year at the Earth Ball, an environmentalist inaugural event in honor of President Bill Clinton. Additionally, 1993 was the year in which Havens unveiled a new live album, as well as the Rhino Records career retrospective Résumé, which Entertainment Weekly called “a concise portrait of a dignified and distinguished artist.” Havens’s appearance at the 1993 Troubadours of Folk festival inspired Hollywood Reporter critic Darryl Morden, who was unimpressed by some of the featured performers, to label the artist’s set “an urgently fierce performance” of which “the crowd demanded an encore and got one.”
As the 1990s progressed, Havens—entering his fourth decade as a performer, his vigor undiminished—continued in his various activities, expanding the Natural Guard, touring, recording, painting, sculpting, and lecturing. “Some people see me as an idealist,” he remarked in the Chicago Tribune, “but I know I’m a realist. Positive things are going on all the time. They just don’t get the press they deserve.” In a later interview with the Tribune he noted, “Folk music has never gone away. It’s just that as each generation comes of age, they ’discover’ the music that is a little deeper from what they have been listening to.”
A Richie Havens Record, Douglas Records, 1965.
Electric Havens, Douglas, 1966.
Stonehenge, Stormy Forest, 1970.
The End of the Beginning, A&M, 1976.
Mirage, A&M, 1977.
Connections, Elektra, 1980.
Common Ground, Connection, 1987.
Richie Havens Sings the Beatles and Bob Dylan, 1987.
Simple Things, RBI, 1987.
Now, Solar/Epic, 1991.
Résumé: The Best of Richie Havens, Rhino, 1993.
Mixed Bag (includes “Just Like a Woman,” “Handsome Johnny,” and “Eleanor Rigby”), 1967.
Something Else Again, 1968.
Richard P. Havens, 1969, reissued, 1983.
Alarm Clock (includes “Here Comes the Sun”), 1971.
The Great Blind Degree, 1971.
Richie Havens on Stage, 1972.
Portfolio, 1973. Mixed Bag II, 1975.
“Freedom/Motherless Child,” Woodstock (soundtrack), Cotillion, 1970.
American Children, Alacazam, 1989.
(With Rockapella) “The Light of the Sun,” Put On Your Green Shoes, Sony Kids’ Music, 1993.
“Just Like a Woman,” Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert, Columbia, 1993.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
Amtrak Express, March 1993.
Billboard, March 23, 1985; December 14, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1985; June 27, 1991; May 16, 1993; June 17, 1993.
Denver Post, May 16, 1993.
Detroit Free Press, January 29, 1993.
Down Beat, February 8, 1968.
Entertainment Weekly, April 30, 1993.
Frets, November 1987.
Guitar Player, December 1974; October 1987.
Hollywood Reporter, June 8, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1990.
Melody Maker, July 9, 1977.
Rolling Stone, August 24, 1989.
Sing Out!, August 1968.
Wall Street Journal, December 26, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Rhino Records, 1993.
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