Today Richie Havens turns 64. 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 saw Havens perform at the Hungry i in San Francisco in June 1968, the week before Enrico Banducci closed the club. (My dad let me drag him along to the show; I enjoyed Havens quite a bit more than my father did.) Mort Sahl was playing on one side of the club, Havens on the other. Havens played to a small audience accompanying himself on guitar and just poured it on. I believe that the obscure comedian Stanley Myron Handelman warmed up for Havens without drawing a laugh, although he deserved to.
I loved Havens’ succeeding Verve albums, “Something Else Again” and the double-album “Richard P. Havens, 1983.” They followed up on the myriad strengths of “Mixed Bag,” combining terrific original compositions and interpretive pyrotechnics. Havens must have been good; the folk boom had long since passed, yet here was an unreconstructed folkie, black to boot, who seemed not to have heard or to care. At Woodstock in 1969 he stole the show.
Earlier this year Hip-O Select released a remastered two-disc compilation of these three groundbreaking albums with which Havens launched his career: “High Flyin’ Bird: The Verve Forecast Years” (available only online). The songs sound better than ever, and hold up remarkably well.
UPDATE: We’ve heard from several readers who have written to share their warm feelings regarding the music of Richie Havens. Among the several messages were two reporting close encounters with Richie. Reader and blogger Jim Street writes:
My wife and I saw him about 4 years ago. After the concert he hung around the stage and we went up to meet him. I have to say he was one of the nicest folks I ever met; spent time w/ us shooting the breeze. Just a real warm spirit. I asked him how it felt to take the lead-off at Woodstock and he said, “Man, I was scared to death!”
Reader Mel Bernstine writes from Paris:
I am a regular reader of Powerline (even before the Time magazine award). I am always amazed how you guys are able to keep a handle on some much of what is happening and to write lucidly about it. Keep up the good work!
I am also happy to see from time to time your more personal blog entries, like yours about Richie Havens, who I have been a fan of since being a young adolescent. I saw him play more than once at Central Park in New York, his toothless mouth soulfully lisping his unique and beautiful song style. He is classic and his best songs haven’t aged a bit. I always dreamed that he would do a duo with Nina Simone [one of Havens’ great musical influences].
In the mid-1970s, my grandmother owned a small 6 story building on West 48th street in Manhattan, not far from Rockefeller Center. This was a time of severe economic problems in New York, and the building wasn’t worth much then. It was a office building, in pretty bad shape, and about half the offices were unrented. One summer I was plastering and painting the halls. I knocked on the door to one office, and you can imagine my surprise when, sitting in a circle of a few people in the front room, there was Richie Havens! He had an office in my grandmother’s dilapidated walk-up office building.