By Peter Lindblad
Possessing one of the iconic voices of the ’60s folk world, Richie Havens held Woodstock spellbound with his soulful humanity as the festival’s first — however reluctant — performer.
His unique, rhythmic, acoustic guitar stylings and calls for unity and brotherhood sprung Havens from the Greenwich Village ’60s folk scene that nurtured his burgeoning talent and catapulted him into the national consciousness.
Born and bred in Brooklyn, N.Y., Havens actually started out in doo-wop, singing with neighborhood friends on street corners, and, then, lending his voice to The McCrea Gospel Singers at age 16.
Lured to Greenwich Village four years later by the promise of freedom of expression, Havens found a place where he could grow artistically. Though he scratched out only a meager living doing portraits and playing gigs, Havens would hook up with famed manager Albert Grossman.
A record deal with the Verve label soon followed, and Havens made his mark with his stunning 1967 debut, Mixed Bag. Songs like “Handsome Johnny,” co-written by Havens and actor Louis Gossett Jr., and “Follow” would establish Havens as an artist worth watching. And his cover of “Just Like A Woman” earned him a reputation as a sublime interpreter of Bob Dylan’s work.
Havens was, and still is, prolific, recording five more albums by the time 1969 rolled around, with 1968’s Something Else Again becoming his first to crack the Billboard charts.
But it was his electrifying performance at Woodstock that made him a household name. Television appearances, acting work — he was in the original 1972 staging of The Who’s “Tommy” — and ecological education projects broadened his horizons. But, he’s continued recording over the years, and in 2008, he released a new album of timeless folk entreaties titled Nobody Left To Crown.
I read an interesting quote from you in which you said, “I’m not in show business; I’m in the communications business.” Is it harder to reach the audience you’re attempting to communicate with with all the technological advancements and hustle and bustle of modern living?
Richie Havens: To tell you the honest truth, it all works for me. It really does, yes.
When I said that — to put it into a certain context — we were talking about the music I was interested in before I went to Greenwich Village, and of course, that was doo-wop with all my friends. You know, singing on the street corner, and trying to get into The Apollo to the contest and all that stuff, and so to me, that was show business. And it is what it is.
Although, the music of our times, belonging to us, called rock ’n’ roll was not touted as much as it could have been as a social folk scene. But, we were trying to grow out of a certain non-voice situation into expanding the voice we had from rock ’n’ roll, the support we had. I mean, I tell people it was embarrassing in those days when you had to write a song called “No, no, no, I’m not a juvenile delinquent” (laughs). But, we had to sing stuff like that, and of course, the older guys were singing the other half of that — the dilemma was “bup, bup, bup, bup dum/ bang, bang, bang, bang ... get a job” (laughs).
Every parent in the world was telling me kids do that at that point. But, you know, what comes out of it is that when I went to Greewich Village, the first six or seven songs that really captured me... it was a different kind of song. It was an all-inclusive song.
I wasn’t just talking about my friends in doo-wop, but here I am talking about the world and the people in it. And these songs really turned me on as to how to present what I saw and what people wanted me to see and what people don’t want me to see as an individual. So, on that level, I’m in the communications business. Because all the covers or the songs that I sing, it’s something that nurtured me, something where I could sing these better songs.
These more clear information, social involvement and all that was part of the communications I spoke about.
The name of your latest album is Nobody Left To Crown. For you, that sounds awfully pessimistic, or is it a kind of call to arms for people to not look to leaders to help themselves out of whatever predicament they’re in but to look inward?
RH: No, actually, it may... it really doesn’t. It meant there’s nobody left to crown except ourselves for being able to survive the craziness that they put us through when they jammed us underground.
It was great for Woodstock to occur, because it brought us above ground, and they couldn’t hide us. So, for me, that privilege [was] to be able to sing for people songs that they wouldn’t have heard in their lives had they not passed Greenwich Village at the time, and the people who were singing them were very, very professional.
And then, what they did, from Peter, Paul and Mary to Fred Neil to Joan Baez to all these singers that had some sense of where their concerns all came together... we called it protest music, although it wasn’t really protest music. It was songs that had been sung by folk people all throughout the ages. These happened to be singer-songwriters of our age at that point, using that system to sing the songs necessary for us in our time.
I suppose that title, and you probably already touched on this, is a call for people to maybe look inward and be their own leaders, instead of looking to our leaders to dig us out of the hole we’re in.
RH: Exactly. That’s exactly what it means.
You do soulful covers of Jackson Browne’s “Lives In The Balance” and “The Great Mandela (The Wheel of Life)” by Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary on this new record. What did you want to bring to those songs to make them Richie Havens’ songs?
RH: I don’t think about that. I don’t ever think I’m making anything into Richie Havens’ songs (laughs) in music. For me, it’s like, “God, they’ve pushed me again.”
I feel this wonderful energy of information that comes from these songs, and that, you know, I ... you know, like I said, the songs that I cover, people who would sit who would be on the outside of this knowledge would not know that I’m not singing just to cover them because I might think that I could sing them. But I was singing them in order for me to express what the writer had given to me hearing that song.
And all the songs that I’ve covered are songs that the writers were very important in, in terms of they were living in the same world I was. There were many ways to see the center, and all of these people contributed to that in me. So, I never really think about that, you know?
It is interesting, because when I write a song, I don’t actually claim to own the song. But I did write it. You know, when I write it, it basically ... it comes out of me, comes through me. I hear a title whiz through my mind in a taxi cab. I write it down, and by the time I get back, it reverses already, because that’s the way it comes. And by the time I get up the elevator to wherever I’m going, the song is done. And I have this wonderful... I don’t know what to call it... gift of being able to hear a song being sung to me.
The whole melody and the lyrics come from that same time, and I would say that the melody is sung to me. I hear someone singing these words, and when I hear them singing those words, I am an audience.
So, even the songs I sing, I’m the audience as well as the audience that’s before me... right there singing, I’m singing to them. Just like I sang to some of the guys that as singer-songwriters... matter of fact is how I got my first guitar thrust into my hands. Freddie Neil ... he sang about three of those songs that I mentioned that I ended up singing onstage at first.
Oh yeah? Talk about that.
RH: He came to me one day, while I’m in the Village doing portraits and doing poetry — that was how I was staying alive at the time — and I had the wonderful privilege to go to any coffeehouse and sit down and listen to everyone who sang for years.
So, Freddie Neil... he came up to me one day, and he says, “Hey, Richie, you’ve been singing my songs for about six months now offstage and in harmony no less, you know. Take this guitar and go home and learn how to play it.” So, I got this first guitar to be able to use, a real guitar. And you know, prior to that, doo-wop had no instruments, and here I am now. I would have never been onstage to sing by myself if I didn’t have the support I needed — since I wasn’t one of the upfront guys in all the doo-wop bands that I was ever in.
I was the guy doing the baritone voice, but I was also doing the choreography, and I was also keeping everybody on note (laughs). I wrote some of the songs. Every day I wrote three or 10 songs, you know (laughs), whatever. But, I took a guitar home, and I didn’t know how to tune it. So, this is where I drop off from doo-wop to folk. I use doo-wop in terms of the fact that all of the voices are singing a chord.
So, I tune my guitar to the chord. So, it’s open tuning. It’s D-A-D-F#-A-D, from the top to the bottom. And this became my support to allow me to even get up on the stage and sing. So, three days later, I was back there, and I was not only singing his two songs, or three songs, but I was singing songs from Dino Valente, another person in Greenwich Village who inspired me, and Bob Gibson, who inspired me. People like that. And there I was, in the middle of them now.
They were my ancestors sitting right on stage with me (laughs). You’ve really done well, guys (laughs). They got me. They recruited me and threw me in the great divide. But, it really allowed me to be able to express many things inside of myself that I couldn’t have done in doo-wop, in that sense, because I don’t think most of the people that heard doo-wop realized that it was a commercial approach to social issues.
You went to Greenwich Village at the age of 20 looking for artistic inspiration. What do you remember about your arrival?
RH: How I got there, this is very interesting, because it turns out one of my doo-wop friends who I sang with in the doo-wop band, the last one I was in, before I sort of moved across the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan... we were poets. We wrote poetry, me and my friend, Michael Kroeger. He was our second tenor in the band.
And Michael, he was an incredible writer, poet. He was really what I would have called ... like he’s the real poet. I’m just the guy trying to put poetry down on paper. He was really a wonderful writer, and so, we wrote poetry, and somehow or other, it got around in the neighborhood,you know, and the other guys, the big guys, were calling me and Michael “beatniks.” We didn’t know what a beatnik was. We had no clue.
And what happened was we went... my friend came running over to my house one day and he goes, “Richie, look... beatniks in Greenwich Village in Manhattan (laughs).” “Really? What do they say they are?” “I don’t know. They just talk about a lot of different people and the stuff they’re doing.” I said, “Okay, let’s go and see who we are. Let’s go find out (laughs) who they’re saying we are.”
And we went to Greenwich Village and heard poets. And we heard singer-songwriters. We heard traditional folk singers. We saw painters paint in the streets. It was like being in circus heaven. Everybody had their act, and everybody contributed to the whole of being there... really amazing. And that’s what attracted me to being in Greenwich Village... I was an audience.
I was listening to that poetry. I was listening to those songs in between drawing portraits in the street to stay alive. It awakened something in me... that atmosphere of possibilities, you know, so many possibilities we could exercise at this point. We’d been working hard singing it, so far, and now maybe some duets will show up in our musical world. Maybe some trios. Because I started singing with a conga drummer and another kid who I went to school with his brothers and sisters. He was the young one of us. He was like 13 years old.
When I went up on stage in Greenwich Village, he was there. He played maracas, and he sang the third voice. We sang in a trio since. We had the conga drummer, him and myself. And so, in the early days, we did some real trio music with really interesting approaches. We had some jazz harmonies in the way we sang and all of that kind of stuff, because I had tuned my guitar the way I play it and have all the support I needed, and boy, we had a good time singing together. That’s the way it started.
Looking back, was that move absolutely necessary for you to become the artist you would become?
RH: I would have to say so. In hindsight, I would have to say so, because it was definitely a crossing of the bridge into another land, another mountain, another conclave, you know... commune-ism.
It was a really great gathering of so many people who became famous. Ninety percent of them became famous in the world, the people I saw in Greenwich Village when I first went there. Some did records.
I found that a lot of those singer-songwriters made albums out of protest, that they didn’t want to be making albums (laughs). They wanted to be onstage playing music for people. They didn’t want to get hooked up in this business, which came along with the package.
I wasn’t running around looking to be recorded. I was having a darn good time singing songs and getting feedback from people from all over the world. That was my thing when I did portraits. I was able to sit out in front of the café and do portraits and then run downstairs and sing a few songs (laughs).
What do you remember about first walking out onstage at Woodstock?
RH: Oh, God. It just so happened that they had to catch me first. I was on the run, because I wanted to be over at the field, but they actually couldn’t get anybody over to the field.
The concert actually was five hours late from what it advertised what it was going to be doing. There was over the 250,000 people they said was going to be there. It was more like 520,000 people who were there. They didn’t have any way to get any of the bands or the equipment to the backstage area at all.
There was nothing to bring them through the roads that weren’t there. Roads of cars parked all the way back to 17, which is the off road to the turnpike down there, the New York throughway. Thirty miles of people sitting on top of their cars, having their own Woodstock because they couldn’t get the car off the road. It had all stopped completely and shut down.
So, they were stuck on the road, and we got there early enough, but nothing was happening. All of a sudden, it’s now 5:30 p.m. in the evening, and I hear a loud noise, and it’s a helicopter coming down in the field right behind me in the hotel parking lot. And it was a bubble helicopter, one of those glass bubble things. Turns out, it belonged to a farmer down the road, who they asked to take people over.
Then they knocked on my door in the hotel and said, “Richie, would you go over now?” I said, “No problem.” I wanted to be over there. “What happened?” [asked Richie] They said, “Oh, we couldn’t get anybody to get us there.”
So, we get on. I have two guys playing with me. [If}my bass player had come, we wouldn’t have been so electively different from anybody else, but he came with other people, so he got stuck on the road. So it left me and the conga drummer and my guitarist and basically, that was like a “Oh, boy” in and of itself, being just the three of us.
And so they go, “Hey, Richie, would you go on?” I said, “Wait a minute. It says I’m No. 4 (laughs).” They go, “Yeah, but there’s nobody here to go on.” I said, “Oh, my God.” This is like 520,000 people. If something doesn’t get thrown up on the stage, I’m going to die (laughs).
So, what happens is, I go, “Oh, no. I don't want to go on first.” And I sort of disappeared (laughs) into the crowd. And then here I am talking to somebody, and they catch me again. So, after catching me three times, I decided I’ve got to do something or else it’s going to be, you know, a riot out here, and they may blame it on me (laughs).
So, I did. I went up onstage, and of course, everybody wanted something to be happening, and I got up on the stage and I realized how many people were there, ’cause I flew over them. They were under my feet in the helicopter, and the weirdest thing is, the helicopter brought us and went back to the motel. And by the time he got back, there was a pile of amplifiers and stuff sitting there, and the guy goes, “I can’t carry that off of there in my helicopter. What are you guys, nuts?”
So, he gets in his helicopter, and he takes off and goes home (laughs). So, now they’re stuck with all this stuff sitting out in front of the door and not knowing what to do, and as it turns out, that’s why I was onstage for two hours and 45 minutes.
After doing my 40 that I was supposed to do, I walked off, and they go, “Richie, can you do four more?” And I said, “OK. I’ll do four more.” [Then, growing more exasperated and scared] “Richie, can you do four more?” “Okay.” Well, by the seventh time they are doing this to me, seven times, I didn’t have a song to sing.
I did every song I knew that I played on the guitar. And all of a sudden I’m going, “Oh, my God.”
I remember, you know, interestingly enough, I wasn’t as afraid, in reality, of being on the stage as much as I was scared to death of the first Newport I ever went to. I didn’t even have a record out. I was, this was 1966... um, ’65, [and] I did a workshop. I wasn’t even on the main stage, but I had the same manager as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary, and basically, he got me sort of like a little gig in the workshop area, when the two other people turned out to be Bob Dylan and Donovan (laughs), who everyone in America was meeting for the first time.
And it was great, because, you know, there was a little rivalry thing going on without, of course, without the knowledge of Donovan — he was the same — but people were scaring the hell out of Bob saying, this guy is the Bob Dylan of England (laughs). He didn’t know what that meant.
When we sat down to play, it was very obvious that we liked each other, that it wasn’t going to be as hard as, or mystical as, people made us think. It was what we did. And that was great. Now, here I am, and the next year I’m going out on the main stage, and I look out, and there’s 9,000 people. I’m going, “Oh, my God. There’s 9,000 people out there. How the heck do I get out of this one?” with my knees wobbling and I’m looking for a stool to sit down (laughs).
I sit down and this is what goes through my mind: I go, “This is a giant, and he’s laying on his back. His feet are right up here in front of the stage, and his head is all the way back by the fence back there. And if I can get him to just peek up, and look at what I’m doing, I will feel a helluva lot more comfortable than I do now.”
And, of course, the giant was the audience, you know, and the giant not only lifted his head, he sat up, and I went, “Oh, boy, this is fun now.” So, when I got to Woodstock, even though it was three years later, the numbers only meant to me that we had come out of the concern; we were born out of the concern... everybody, you know, and that this is something we all had input in way before it happens to us. But, you know, the folk festival, being traditional as it was, there were only certain songs that I could sing, and I sang what I sang.
They happened to just allow me to... I did some hymns that I sang, like “Motherless Child” for instance. I hadn’t sung that song in about 13 or 14 years. I sang it early on in Greenwich Village. Before that, I started with my doo-wop buddy, who sang lead [and] was a young kid who was about 12, and his mother actually ran the church, and she had had a family choir there, and she said, “If he’s going to be playing rock ’n’ roll with you, you guys are going to be in here singing for God (laughs).”
So, we said, “No problem.” We needed our lead singer. She made a deal with us, which was a really wonderful deal, you know, and I learned a lot of stuff. “Motherless Child” was one of the songs we sang together.