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Folk Music Legend Richie Havens Dead at 72

Folk music singer and guitarist Richie Havens, who opened the 1969 Woodstock music festival, died Monday, April 22, of a heart attack at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 72.

Havens, who retired from performing three years ago, toured for more than 40 years and recorded 30 albums. However, he'll probably be best known as the opening act at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, where he performed one of his most famous songs, "Freedom," his own version of a spiritual called "Motherless Child."

Actually, that day, Havens had no choice but to play every song he knew.

Scheduled fifth on the bill for the opening day of the Woodstock festival on August 15, 1969, Havens, his Guild acoustic guitar and his band were forced to go on early because other bands were busy fighting traffic on the way to the festival grounds near Bethel, New York.

"It was 5 o'clock and nothing was happening yet," Havens told Billboard. "I had the least instruments [to set up on stage] and the least people [in his band]." Havens performed for 40 minutes. "I went back and did that, then it was, 'Four more songs ...,' and that kept happening 'til two hours and 45 minutes later, I had sung every song I know."

Havens was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 21, 1941, the eldest of nine children. He told CNN in 1999 that music enabled him to leave his rough neighborhood to head to Greenwich Village's exciting music scene.

"I believe I inherited my sense of music from my father. My father was an ear piano player; he could just hear something and play it," he said. "I came up in Brooklyn singing doo-wop music from the time I was 13 to the time I was 20. That music served a purpose of keeping a lot of people out of trouble, and also it was a passport from one neighborhood to another."

Havens sometimes played three coffeehouses a night. "I was there seven and a half years, every day," he told CNN. "It was the most incredibly magic, magic time."

Havens' reputation as a solo performer soon spread beyond the Village folk circles. After recording two records for Douglas Records, Havens signed on with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and landed a deal with the Verve Forecast label. Verve released Mixed Bag in 1967, plus 1968's Something Else Again and 1969's Richie Havens Record, among other discs.

After Woodstock, Havens started his own label, Stormy Forest, which released six of his albums. These included 1970's Alarm Clock, which featured Havens’ most popular single, his version of the Beatles' “Here Comes the Sun,” which was written by George Harrison. In later years, Havens also would cover Harrison's "My Sweet Lord."

The '80s and '90s found Havens recording TV jingles for companies including Amtrak, McDonald’s and Cotton Incorporated. He performed at the Environmental Inaugural Ball, an event associated with the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, in January 1993. In 2009, he played a sold-out show at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on the site of the original Woodstock festival.

In 2012, Quentin Tarantino used Havens' "Freedom" — to strong emotional effect — in the climax scene of his latest film, Django Unchained.

Fellow Woodstock legend Alvin Lee, the former Ten Years After guitarist, also passed away in 2013. He died March 6 at age 68 following complications during routine surgery.

Music world reacts to Havens' death

Several artists and gear manufacturers haven taken to Twitter to lament Havens' death, including:

Slash: & now I hear Richie Havens has passed on. I grew up with his music. Artistic free spirit since the 60's. RIP Richie.
Tom Morello: RIP Richie Havens. A great talent, a great soul.
Joe Bonamassa: Rest in peace Richie Havens. A great guy and an icon.
Tony Levin: Deeply saddened by the loss of Richie Havens. A great performer, a great man.
Michael Nesmith: RIP Richie Havens. A HUGE loss to the music world. Devastating news.
Line 6: We lost a true giant today. Richie Havens has died at age 72.
Jim Dunlop USA: RIP Richie Havens, a real troubadour, a positive force in music, and a good man with a good soul.

Damian Fanelli

Damian is editor-in-chief of Guitar World magazine. From 1998 to 2014, he was one third of Mister Neutron, an instrumental rock act that toured the universe and elsewhere and released three albums via Austin-based Deep Eddy Records. These days he performs with several New York City-area bands and can often be spotted with one of his many, many, many B-bender-equipped guitars. In past lives he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor – and he still can’t believe he got to write the liner notes for the latest SRV box set.