Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of singer/songwriter Richie Havens. Richie died in 2013 at the age of 72. I want to take a walk down memory lane with a few videos and a fan’s notes this morning.
Richie 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, none more so than Havens’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.”
The New York Times obit by Douglas Martin took note of Havens’s hit version of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” but also conveyed 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
I think you can hear what Dylan heard in his version of “Just Like a Woman.”
“New City” (below) is from Something Else Again. Richie wrote the song with John Court. It’s a favorite of mine. I loved it upon first hearing.
I had the great good fortune of seeing Richie 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. Richie 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.”
Havens must have been good; the folk boom had long since passed, yet here was an unreconstructed folkie who seemed not to have heard or to care. He was black and in need of dentures or dental implants to boot. At Woodstock in 1969 he may have stolen the show. He said he played every song he knew while the scheduled opening acts were still trying to make their way in.
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 in my estimation most of them hold up remarkably well. Take, for example, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” from Mixed Bag. It’s an incredibly sweet cover of the frequently covered Jesse Fuller number.
In his own compositions you can hear Richie searching for metaphors that might inspire us “to wake up and be,” as he put it in “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed.” That’s what I get out of “There’s a Hole in the Future.” The song appears in Dave Lieber’s warm recollection of “What the late Richie Havens taught me.”
Richie continued to sound just like himself pretty much to the end, although his health issues forced him to give up performing during the last few years of his life. 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.” But we can remember.