Woodstock icon Richie Havens returns Sunday to The Acorn Theater
By JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO
July 8, 2010
THREE OAKS - Richie Havens is reluctant to take credit for his own
music, the result of a songwriting process that to him can seem too easy.
He sits at a table with a piece of paper and the words just come. He
grabs his guitar and finds a melody and that comes, too. That's how
it happened with "The Key" and "If I," the two songs the musical icon
says carry his latest record, 2008's "Nobody Left to Crown."
"I don't change a word of it," says Havens, who performs Sunday with
Mustard's Retreat at The Acorn Theater in Three Oaks. "That's how I
know it's something that I really needed at the time. Then I wonder
if other people might need to hear this, too."
Although fans may still stop the 69-year-old Havens to talk about his
legendary three-hour set that opened the Woodstock Music and Arts
Fair some 40 years ago, it's his rich baritone vocals, fiery lyrics
and intense rhythmic guitar style that continues to woo audiences.
"Nobody Left to Crown," released on the Verve label, is Haven's 30th
album. He's currently working on No. 31, which he hopes to have
finished by October. Havens also recorded "Will the Circle Be
Unbroken" for Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's 2009 Civil Rights
documentary "Soundtrack for a Revolution" and still tours with the
fervor of a musician half his age.
"Everywhere I go it's the audience that has brought me there," Havens
says. "I'm still playing because I enjoy that connection. It's
something we're sharing or had shared before. So it feels like a
conversation with old friends."
Havens was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the oldest of nine children. He
was a natural singer who organized street corner doo-wop groups. At
16, Havens was performing with The McCrea Gospel Singers, and by 20
he left Brooklyn to become part of the artistic movement that was
taking place in Greenwich Village. It was the beatnik days of the
1950s, and Havens spent much of that time drawing portraits,
performing poetry, and listening to folk music in clubs and coffeehouses.
Havens, who had never played an instrument before, began
experimenting with a guitar. Instead of learning fingering positions,
he tuned his guitar to the key of D from top to bottom. With his
thumb holding down the strings on the guitar neck, Havens was able to
churn out enough chords to perform on stage.
Havens' reputation as a solo performer spread beyond the Village.
After signing with manager Albert Grossman, Havens landed his first
record deal, with Verve releasing his major label debut "Mixed Bag"
in 1967. The album featured tracks such as "Handsome Johnny"
(co-written by actor Louis Gossett Jr.), "Follow," and a version of
Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman," the first of Havens' many notable
By 1969, he had released five more albums, including 1968's
"Something Else Again," which became Havens' first record to chart on
Billboard's Top 100. But it was his famous set in that field near
Bethel, N.Y., that made the musician an icon. After going through his
entire catalog and responding to repeated encores, Havens ended his
nearly three-hour set with an improvised song based on the old
spiritual "Motherless Child." That song became "Freedom," which is
now considered an anthem for his generation.
"I can only feel proud about that," Havens says. "People will yell at
me out of passenger windows, 'Hey Richie!' and stop me at airports
because of that song."
Havens hit Billboard's Top 30 chart with 1970's "Alarm Clock," which
featured his hit version of the Beatles single "Here Comes the Sun."
He has since been featured in the original 1972 stage presentation of
The Who's "Tommy"; co-founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, an
oceanographic children's museum on City Island in the Bronx;
collaborated with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Bruce Springsteen;
and performed at President Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
In addition to the six original songs on "Nobody Left to Crown," the
album also highlights Havens ability to make other artists' songs his
own. One of the seven covers on the album is The Who classic "Won't
Get Fooled Again," which has become a popular staple at his live shows.
"I held that song in my little box for a long time," Havens says. "I
always threatened to record it, and I finally did. It's one of those
songs that have become more serious over time. It's incredible, that
lyric. To me it's a wake-up song."