Richie Havens’ roots were in gospel and doo-wop, before graduating onto the coffeehouse circuit of the early 60s alongside singers like Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot.
Already a popular performer, he developed his trademark open-chord guitar tuning at this time, providing an urgent rhythmic backdrop to his soulful voice.
Early demos for Douglas Records were issued in 1967 as A Richie Havens Record and Electric Havens. Both showed his ability as a folk singer, but it was his major label debut, Mixed Bag (1967), that provided the blueprint for his subsequent career.
Its outstanding tracks were versions of Dylan‘s Just Like A Woman and Lightfoot’s I Can’t Make It Anymore.
Something Else Again (1968) went gold despite being more intense in its music and lyrics (notably The Klan), while the double album Richard P Havens, 1983 (1969) was an excellent mix of originals and covers, with a darker, brooding feel.
His finest three hours came with his performance at Woodstock in 1969, and the image from D.A. Pennabaker’s documentary, of a sweat-drenched, kaftan-clad Havens improvising his final song, Freedom, encapsulated the spirit of the event.
American chart success followed, firstly with a Top 20 cover of The Beatles‘ Here Comes The Sun, and then with its parent album Alarm Clock (1970). Its predecessor, Stonehenge (also 1970), had featured his cover of The Bee Gees‘ I Started A Joke, which showcased Havens’ ability to transform the unlikeliest material.
Subsequent albums continued in the same vein, most notably The Great Blind Degree (1971).
An honest and earnest musician, and a diligent campaigner on ecological issues, Havens survived the musical excesses of the 70s and 80s to see the emergence of a new breed of similarly inclined singer-songwriters, like Ben Harper and Freedy Johnston.
Despite some questionable rock arrangements, Cuts To The Chase (1994) contained excellent covers of Sting’s They Dance Alone and Jackson Browne‘s Lives In The Balance.
Wishing Well (2002) was equally accomplished and was hailed by many as his most accomplished work since the 1970s.