A long, long way from home: Remembering the life of musician Richie Havens
Kevin J. Aylmer | 7/31/2013, 12:28 p.m.
During these early days of Camelot and the New Frontier, beehive hairdos and the occasional leopard skin pillbox hat, Havens forsook childhood dreams of becoming a surgeon. Instead, his schedule became three coffeehouses nightly, playing — and praying — for good tips when the basket was passed after 20-minute sets.
Appropriately enough, Richie Havens’ first recording, Mixed Bag, was released during America’s Summer of Love, in 1967. It was a soulful mélange reflecting an era of experimentation and skepticism — folk, blues, jazz, gospel and rock. Highlighting its militant pacifism and bittersweet realism, “Handsome Johnny” (co-written with Lou Gossett, Jr.) was counterpoised to John Lennon & Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” A short time later, this sage of flower power was informing Rolling Stone: “Music is the major form of communication. It’s the commonest vibration, the people’s news broadcast, especially for kids.” Within the year, these kids would turn out for the greatest love-fest ever seen on planet Earth.
The Show in Upstate NY
Although now enshrouded in an amber glow of nostalgia, Havens’ opening performance at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was an unexpected twist of fate. “I opened Woodstock by default,” Havens reminisced late one October night in Stoughton, Mass. “I was supposed to go on as number five, but there wasn’t anyone to go on, so they convinced me to go on first. They had a lot of convincing, too, because the concert was 2 1/2 to three hours late. But they couldn’t get anybody to the field, because the road they had opened to bring the instruments and the amps and the groups was blocked. So I sat around. Eventually, they got hold of a local guy who had a bubble helicopter and since we had the fewest instruments they took my bunch of guys there first.”
“Shortly after that something happened that on one ever talks about. The Army came in. It was Army helicopters that got the bands to the stage. Not too many people know that. But if it wasn’t for the Army, Woodstock would never have happened.”
“After seven encores, I looked out over the audience and realized that this whole generation was looking for freedom and in actuality, at that point, we were exercising the freedom that we thought we needed to have. We were all doing it right there. So I started strumming my guitar and singing ‘Freedom’ and ‘Motherless Child’ came out, and then part of another song I used to sing when I was in a gospel group when I was about 16, which was ‘I Have a Telephone in My Bosom, and I Can Call Him Up in My Heart.’ And ‘Clap Your Hands.’ That was how ‘Freedom’ was made up.”
Life After Woodstock
In 1969, Johnny Carson invited the loquacious ex-Brooklynite to perform on The Tonight Show. Havens received such a rapturous, indeed tumultuous, ovation, a bemused Carson invited him to perform the following evening. It was only the second time in the show’s history that a return invitation would be extended. Despite commercial success and critical acclaim, Havens never relinquished a critical eye on “politricks,” a notion he discussed with Jamaica’s The Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) in Kingston just prior to his Woodstock appearance.