Richie Havens’ legend endures as he enters his fourth decade of performing

:: Richie Havens :::: Boulder Theater :: December 3 ::

By Timothy Dwenger

It’s been nearly four decades since 500,000 people descended upon Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York for the legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. While the festival featured more than 30 of the best-known bands and musicians of the era, the duties of opening the festival fell on one man, Richie Havens.

“I was the first one on stage because I had the least equipment and the least guys,” Havens said in a recent interview with The Marquee, as he recalled the logistical nightmare that was the original Woodstock. “I got helicoptered in and they said, ‘Hey Richie, 40 minutes.’ I said ‘ok’ and went out and did my forty minutes and walked backstage to go off and they said, ‘Richie, no one else is here yet, can you sing four more?’ I said ‘ok’ and went back and did four more and then went backstage and they said, ‘Hey Richie four more?’ They did that six times. I sang for two hours and forty-five minutes, every song I knew. Then I am going, ‘What am I going to sing now?'”

What followed, seemingly by complete accident, cemented Havens’ place in the rock and roll history books. At the tail end of his storied set he was completely out of songs as he continued to try to entertain the receptive crowd. “That long intro you hear in front of that song is me stalling to figure out what I was gonna sing,” he laughed. “I wasn’t gonna revert to doo-wop. So, out of my mouth comes the word “freedom” because, in my mind, this was the freedom that my generation had been looking for throughout the whole ’50s; freedom to say what we felt and what we meant and have the opportunity to explain ourselves. I figure I come from the last ‘speak when you are spoken to’ generation and I call rock and roll the first generational primal scream.”

While it was those two hours and forty-five minutes in 1969 that put Havens on the map, he had been involved with music since the early Fifties. As a teenager, Havens spent a good deal of time on the streets of his native Brooklyn singing in doo-wop groups with his friends. “I think I started at about 13 years old, putting little groups together,” Havens said. “We’d stand on the corners, sing like crazy and get water thrown on us, all the things that went along with that life.”

While Havens never became known for his doo-wop groups, he did have some success in New York City. “We won two Apollo talent contests in a row, before losing out to this team of three guys who danced their behinds off,” he remembered. “In those days if you won three contests in a row and you were a musical act, the guy down in the record store would make a record and sell it for you in his store. If it became popular, he would print more and you would be paid.”

Despite the fact that they didn’t win three of the contests in a row, Havens and his group nearly had their single cut before they were twenty years old. However, “The father of one of the guys in the band was a reverend and he didn’t think we should be singing that kind of music, so it never came through. He didn’t keep us from singing but we never got a single made,” said Havens.

While doo-wop still ruled the streets of Brooklyn in the late Fifties, a new and different culture was beginning to take hold in Manhattan. The Beat Generation had gained momentum and was attracting media attention. It was around this time that some of Havens’ doo-wop friends began teasing him about being a “beatnik.” “We didn’t know what the heck a beatnik was,” he said. “It took about a week of enduring the name calling before my friend came running over to my house pointing at a headline in the New York Times that read, ‘Beatniks in Manhattan,’ and we decided to go over to Greenwich Village to find out who we were.”

“What we found out was that the term wasn’t derogatory at all. They were calling us beatniks because we wrote poetry. They thought they were being derogatory, but it turned out that they turned me on to the most special place that I could ever think of being,” Havens said. He embedded himself in the scene, drawing first on his talent with pen and ink to create portraits before starting to recite poetry in some of the coffee houses on MacDougal Street. It wasn’t long before Havens was spending late nights in the coffee houses listening to the musicians who had laid the groundwork for the explosion of folk music.

“I heard six songs that changed my life, written by two or three guys who had been there throughout the Fifties. They were the ‘in crowd,’ so to speak, and I learned the songs by singing along with them from the audience,” said Havens. “Fred Neil was my first mentor and he said to me, ‘Richie, you’ve been singing these songs from the audience for six months now, in harmony no less, so take this guitar home and learn to play them your damn self.'”

“Neil lent Havens a guitar and without another word Havens went home to learn the songs that he revered. He soon realized that he had no idea how to tune the instrument so he reverted to his days of doo-wop and tuned the guitar to a chord, because he realized that if he did so he could play a major chord by holding down all the strings at any fret on the neck of the instrument. “In three days I was up on the stage singing the six songs I had learned. That’s how easily it came to me,” Havens said.

Since that first time on stage in Greenwich Village, Havens has gravitated to stages all over the world. Unlike many performers, he has been fortunate enough to confine most of his performances to the weekends. “Twenty-nine years now of weekends all year ’round,” he said. “I do a lot of other things during the week, including helping teach people how to read, spending time with my family and painting, but I get to go out every weekend and perform.”

While he does perform countless original tunes, Havens is an artist that is perhaps better known for his unique interpretation of other people’s songs than for his own. “There are always a few covers on my records of songs that have moved me. Interestingly enough, they could have been my favorite song in 1973 and now, all of these years later, that is all I can hear in my brain and I think, ‘Well, I’m supposed to record it now,” said Havens.

His new record Nobody Left to Crown is slated to be released in the next few months and features a re-recording of the highly relevant title track, a couple of surprise covers and several new, original songs. “I have been writing quite a bit more for each of the last three albums,” he said. “I never sit down and try to write anything at all because I know that I could fake myself out. I used to write ten doo-wop songs a day and when I stopped doing that I started hearing songs that were very sophisticated and very educational and I said, ‘I want to sing these kinds of songs,’ so that brought me through till now.”

While those sophisticated songs have included tunes penned by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, James Taylor, and Stephen Stills, it is Havens’ readings of Bob Dylan’s catalogue that have consistently been praised by critics and fans alike. Most recently, he contributed a version of the Dylan classic “Tombstone Blues” to the Todd Haynes biopic I’m Not There.

As much as Havens has changed over the years, he has stayed true to his vision of sharing his art with the public and through his original songs and the covers, his public works and his personable demeanor, he has made an indelible mark on the American musical and cultural landscape. His has been a career that many would be envious of, and one that continues to flourish both creatively and commercially. Havens is a man that has made his own rules and it is within the bounds of those rules that he has succeeded as trends have come and gone and other artists of his era have faded into irrelevance.

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