By Dwight Hobbes
Hailing from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y. where he was a contemporary of seminal spoken wordsmiths The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron (they all recorded for the tiny label Douglas Records), Richie Havens caught on with Verve/Folkways in the late 1960s, distinguished by a mellow, raw-edged voice smoothly set to open tuning on the guitar.
He established his career with the albums Mixed Bag, for which he wrote the war protest anthem “Handsome Johnny” with actor Louis Gosset, Jr., Somethin’ Else Again and Richard P. Havens 1983. Gaining renown for creating highly innovative covers of mainstream artists, he was a cult success breaking through on the top charts with his interpretation of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” on his own label Stormy Forest.
Havens was famous until the end of his career for a show-stopping performance recorded live at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival of “Freedom (Motherless Child).” He tried his hand at acting, playing Othello in the rock musical Catch My Soul and doing a supporting lead in Greased Lightning as part of a cast starring Richard Pryor, Pam Grier, Beau Bridges and Cleavon Little, with activist Julian Bond playing a cameo role.
Havens is the self-effacing Woodrow, dutiful mechanic to Pryor’s portrayal of Wendell Scott, former moonshine runner and the first Black stockcar-racing driver to win an upper-tier NASCAR race.
Stormy Forest Records eventually folded, and Havens went on to artistically noteworthy though commercially modest success at A&M Records, which yielded “We Can’t Hide It Anymore” and “Daughter of the Night,” receiving regular airplay on minor radio stations. Throughout his life, he continued to record and tour, maintaining a loyal following that saw him play to sold-out audiences in this area at the Cedar Cultural Center and, for a double-bill, with singer/writer Janis Ian at the Fine Line. At his concert and club dates, he could be counted on to advocate for awareness of the environment, particularly the threat of global warming.
His most recent significant achievement was the song “Hands of Time,” in collaboration with Groove Armada for the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise film Collateral in 2004. He published a memoir, They Can’t Hide Us Anymore, in 2000 and released his final album, Nobody Left to Crown, in 2008.
Richie Havens died at his home in Jersey City, N.J at the age of 72.