Richie Havens performs 'Freedom' at The Clearwater Concert: Creating the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders in honor of Pete Seeger on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
(USA TODAY) -- Wearing a dashiki and strumming earnestly on the open-tuned strings of his guitar, folk singer Richie Havens set the tone for Woodstock. Havens, who opened the watershed 1969 music festival and fashioned a career from covering pop and folk tunes in his distinctively rhythmic style, died Monday morning in his home from a heart attack. He was 72.
Born in 1941, the Brooklyn native moved to Greenwich Village in the early '60s and released his first album, A Richie Havens Record, in 1965. In 1967, he signed with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and also landed a deal with Verve Records. His big break came when he played a lengthy opening set at Woodstock, particularly a memorable extrapolation of the spiritual Motherless Child that became known as Freedom.
In 2004, Jack Black told USA TODAY that Havens' blistering acoustic set was an inspiration to his comedy rock duo Tenacious D "because we couldn't believe how hard a guy could rock with an acoustic guitar."
Havens often covered popular songs, his gritty voice and singular strumming style giving them an easily recognizable sound. His biggest radio hit came in 1971 with a remake of The Beatles' Here Comes the Sun, which reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. He released more than two dozen albums and compilations, the most successful being 1969's Richard P. Havens, 1983 and 1971's Alarm Clock. He later lent his voice to several commercials, including one for Cotton Incorporated for which he sang The Fabric of Our Lives jingle.
Havens, who was paid $6,000 for his 1969 Woodstock appearance, returned to the site in upstate New York in August 2009 to commemorate the festival's 40th anniversary. He reprised Freedom for an audience of about 150 in an open field there that afternoon, then performed at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts that night, telling the crowd: "My generation was very, very special, because we had the best-looking generation. We look good ... still."
Havens announced his retirement from live performing in 2012, citing health problems.
According to a media release announcing the singer's death, a public memorial will be planned.
Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY