Singer/songwriter Richie Havens died today at the age of 72. Havens grew up in Brooklyn singing with a choir in church and with doo wop groups on street corners. He crossed the river to figure out how to make a go of it in Greenwich Village as a performer until he signed a recording contract with Verve. In 1967 Havens seemed to materialize out of nowhere with Mixed Bag, a beautiful album of folk covers and original compositions. The album was full of striking performances, but none more so than Havens’s stunning interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.”
I had the great good fortune of seeing Havens perform live at the hungry i in San Francisco in June 1968, the week before Enrico Banducci closed the club. Banducci was determined to go out with a bang. Mort Sahl was playing the room on one side of the club, Havens the room on the other. Havens played to a small audience accompanying himself on guitar and just poured it on. The obscure comedian Stanley Myron Handelman warmed up for Havens without drawing a laugh, although he deserved to. He was funny.
Reviewing Havens’s performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood just before or after I saw him at the hungry i, Los Angeles Times staff writer Pete Johnson surrendered: “He sings in a lispy rasping voice which by all odds should be unappealing and flails the strings of his guitar with an energy which belies sensitivity, but the performance and the man remain inarguably beautiful.”
I flipped over Mixed Bag and loved Havens’s succeeding Verve albums, Something Else Again and the double album Richard P. Havens, 1983. I should add that Stonehenge and Alarm Clock weren’t too shabby either. They all followed up on the myriad strengths of Mixed Bag, combining original compositions and interpretive pyrotechnics.
Havens must have been good; the folk boom had long since passed, yet here was an unreconstructed folkie, black and in need of dentures to boot, who seemed not to have heard or to care. At Woodstock in 1969 he stole the show, playing every song he knew (as the AP recalls) while the scheduled opening acts were still trying to make their way in. Below is his famous performance of “Freedom”/”Motherless Child” before a crowd of 500,000 hippies at the festival.
A few years ago Hip-O Select released a remastered two-disc compilation of his first three albums on Verve: High Flyin’ Bird: The Verve Forecast Years. The songs sound better than ever and hold up remarkably well. Indeed, Richie continued to sound just like himself pretty much to the end, although his health issues required him to give up performing last year. In the 2002 video below Richie sings Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time” backed by the gentlemen of Groove Armada themselves: “Seems to me you can’t turn back the hands of time.” RIP.
UPDATE: Our friend Ed Morrissey writes to correct my oversight: “Great post on Richie Havens, but you left out one thing — he recorded the best ever cover of a Beatles song with ‘Here Comes The Sun.’ He *owned* that song, in part by taking it to the roots of folk-rock.” The New York Times obit by Douglas Martin takes note of Havens’s “Here Comes the Sun,” but also conveys Havens’s mastery of Dylan:
Mr. Havens played many songs written by Mr. Dylan, and he spent three days learning his epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” A man who heard him practicing it stopped him on the stairs as he headed for the dressing room of a nightclub, and told him it was the best he’d ever heard the song sung.
“That’s how I first met Bob Dylan,” Mr. Havens said