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Richie Havens, who opened Woodstock music festival, dies at 72

FILE - In this May 3, 2009 file photo, singer Richie Havens makes an appearance in the press room at the Clearwater Concert celebrating Pete Seeger's 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden, in New York. Havens, who sang and strummed for a sea of people at Woodstock, has died at 72. His family says in a statement that Havens died Monday, April 22, 2013, of a heart attack. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer, File)

FILE - In this May 3, 2009 file photo, singer Richie Havens makes an appearance in the press room at the Clearwater Concert celebrating Pete Seeger's 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden, in New York. Havens, who sang and strummed for a sea of people at Woodstock, has died at 72. His family says in a statement that Havens died Monday, April 22, 2013, of a heart attack. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer, File)

Richie Havens, the New York City folk singer thrust by circumstance onto center stage as the opening act of Woodstock, the legendary 1969 music festival, has died. He was 72.

He died yesterday of a heart attack at his home in Jersey City, N.J., said Tim Drake, president of his booking agent, The Roots Agency of Westwood, N.J.

Scheduled fifth on the program for opening day of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Aug. 15, 1969, Havens and two members of his band were pressed into urgent service as other musicians – including the planned opening act, the folk-rock band Sweetwater – fought traffic on the roads leading to Max Yasgur’s farm outside Woodstock, N.Y.

Havens had been among the first to arrive at the performers’ staging area in nearby Liberty, N.Y. As the afternoon wore on and the crowd, estimated at 500,000 people, waited for the show to begin, concert organizers persuaded Havens, along with his guitarist, Paul Williams, and his drummer, Daniel Ben Zebulon, to squeeze into a helicopter with their two conga drums and two guitars for the quick ride to the festival stage.

“I had the least instruments and the least guys,” Havens explained in a 2008 interview with Bloomberg Television, “and they said, ‘Richie, would you go over now?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s about time, I’ve been here since 5 o’clock in the morning.’ ”

Having gotten Havens to the stage, concert organizers implored him to kick off the festival.

“It had to be Richie – I knew he could handle it, and his powerful but calm demeanor was just what we needed to set the tone for liftoff,” Michael Lang, a co-creator of the Woodstock festival, recalled in The Road to Woodstock, his 2009 book. Havens and his bandmates opened Woodstock shortly after 5 p.m. with “Minstrel From Gault.”

After their regular set, they performed multiple encores to buy time for fellow performers still struggling to reach the site.

Before his final encore, Havens painstakingly tuned his guitar while brainstorming what he had left to play. He told the crowd, “Freedom is what we’re all talking about getting. It’s what we’ve been looking for. I think this is it.”

Havens’s improvised song – which went in part, “Freedom! Freedom! Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home” – became a landmark anthem of the three-day Woodstock event.

The song became an international hit after it was featured in the 1970 Woodstock documentary film.

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