NEW YORK – Richie Havens, the folk singer and guitarist who was the first performer at Woodstock, died Monday at age 72.
Havens died of a heart attack in New Jersey, his family said in a statement. He was born in Brooklyn.
Havens was known for his crafty guitar work and cover songs, including his well-received cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.”
His performance at the three-day 1969 Woodstock Festival, where headliners included Jimi Hendrix, was a turning point in his career. He was the first act to hit the stage, performing for nearly three hours. His performance of “Freedom,” based from the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” became an anthem.
Havens returned to the site during Woodstock’s 40th anniversary in 2009.
“Everything in my life, and so many others, is attached to that train,” he said in an interview that year with The Associated Press.
Woodstock remains one of the events that continues to define the 1960s in the popular imagination. Performers included The Who, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and dozens of others, and the trippy anarchy of Woodstock has become legendary. There was lots of nudity, casual sex, dirty dancing and open drug use. The stage announcer famously warned people to steer clear of the brown acid.
Havens had originally been scheduled to go on fifth but had been bumped up because of travel delays. Festival producer Michael Lang said in the book “The Road to Woodstock” that he chose Havens “because of his calm but powerful demeanor.”
His performance lasted hours because the next act hadn’t showed up.
“So I’d go back and sing three more,” Havens said in an interview with NPR. “This happened six times. So I sung every song I knew.”
Havens’ website said that he had kidney surgery in 2010 and that he never recovered enough to perform concerts like he used to. He performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993.
Havens, who released his breakthrough, “Mixed Bag,” in 1967, released more than 25 albums. He sang with doo-wop groups on the street corner in his Brooklyn neighborhood at an early age. At 20, he moved to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where he performed poetry, listened to folk music and learned how to play the guitar.
“I saw the Village as a place to escape to in order to express yourself,” he said in his biography.
Stephen Stills said he remembered hanging with Havens in Greenwich Village and experiencing the singer’s talent.
“Richie Havens was one of the nicest most generous and pure individuals I have ever met,” Stills said in a statement, adding that Havens was unique and could “never be replicated.”
“When I was a young sprite in Greenwich Village, we used to have breakfast together at the diner on 6th Avenue next to The Waverly Theatre. He was very wise in the ways of our calling. He always caught fire every time he played.”
Havens’ last album was 2008’s “Nobody Left to Crown.” He also started his own record label called Stormy Forest in 2000.
“I really sing songs that move me,” he said in an interview with The Denver Post. “I’m not in show business; I’m in the communications business. That’s what it’s about for me.”
Havens also became an actor in the 1970s and was featured in the original stage presentation of The Who’s “Tommy.” He appeared in the 1974 film “Catch My Soul” and co-starred with Richard Pryor in “Greased Lightning” in 1977.
Havens was the eldest of nine children. He is survived by his three daughters and many grandchildren.
A public memorial for Havens will be planned.