Born in 1941 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with heritage from the West Indies and the Blackfoot tribe, Richie Havens always loved to sing. He had a neighborhood doo-wop group and joined a gospel choir as a kid. But he thought of himself as a poet first and a musician second. That won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows his songs. They always have a message.
In his teens and twenties, he prowled Beatnik-soaked Greenwich Village, reading his poetry and sketching people’s portraits. Once he did start writing songs, he was an immediate draw in the folk clubs. People were ready for what he had to offer. Soon he signed with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. Not too shabby.
Under contract to Verve Folkways, he pushed out three records in as many years. (He’d already cut two albums for a small label called Douglas, which later released them without authorization.) The first Verve record was called Mixed Bag (1966), but it was the second, Something Else Again, that put him on the charts for the first time.
As would prove normal for Havens, Something Else Again was a combination of his own songs and other people’s. Some were well known enough to be considered covers (Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”), and some were unknown (“The Klan” by soon-to-become-actor Alan Arkin and his father David, using the pseudonyms Alan and David Grey).
Among Havens’ compositions is the philosophical “Inside of Him.” The chiffy flute of Jeremy Steig and laid-back piano of Warren Bernhardt set a jazz tone, skittering like a stream under the stolid bricks of Havens’ vocal line.
Today, Havens is probably best remembered for his performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. It was no ordinary gig for him. Scheduled as the opening act, Havens ended up playing for almost three hours because so many of the other artists were stuck in traffic. By the end, he’d not only played every song he knew, but had also improvised the song “Freedom,” which he based on the spiritual “Motherless Child.”
It was worth the effort. His career took off, and soon he had enough capital to form his own label, Stormy Forest. Its first release was his studio album Stonehenge in 1970. From that album, “There’s a Hole in the Future” is a vaguely apocalyptic lyric with a gritty arrangement for multiple guitars that aren’t quite in sync. That roughness and imperfection breeds excitement--and more than a little dread about the future.
While Alarm Clock, from the following year, was Havens’ highest-charting album, he also came out with a second release in 1971. The Great Blind Degree features almost entirely songs by other artists. Bob Brown wrote “In These Flames,” which Havens sings almost like he’s reciting beat poetry. The Indian sitar and tanpura (drone) are played by Havens himself, providing an undulating atmosphere for lyrics about heartbreak. (For more of Havens’ sitar playing, listen to the wordless 7-minute title track of Something Else Again.) He makes the interesting choice to replace sitar with banjo toward the end of “In These Flames,” which returns the story to less exotic ground, making it seem more personal for the listener.
There may have been great potential for Stormy Forest Records, but Havens put much of his energy into other endeavors during the ʼ70s. For one thing, he seemed to be trying for an acting career, appearing in a few small films. But closer to his heart was his work with children and ecological activism. He founded an oceanographic museum for kids in the Bronx as well as an educational organization called the Natural Guard.
Despite those projects, he made time to record Mirage in 1977. He hits a satisfying funk groove on this cover of “We All Wanna Boogie” by the prolific Allen Toussaint (whose songs have been recorded by The Who, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, and on and on). That not-quite-a-saxophone you hear is a wind instrument/synthesizer hybrid called a lyricon.
The 1980 album Connections sports a lively disco vibe, as you can hear in this Charlie Calello/Lamont Dozier composition, “Going Back to My Roots.” What charges the long intro with energy is David Lebolt’s piano and Havens’ rhythm guitar. The lyrics are hardly the typical stuff of disco, describing a search for identity and pride: “Not talking about roots in the land, / I’m talking about the roots in a man.”
I’m going to warn you against listening to the 1987 collection Richie Havens Sings Beatles and Dylan, which relies on sickly Casio-keyboard accompaniment. Dreadful stuff. Happily, Havens did some wonderful covers of both Beatles and Dylan numbers earlier in his career, including an intensely percussive version of the Lennon-McCartney song “Lady Madonna.” This 1969 recording was a non-album promo single but has since appeared on compilations. Just when you think he’s added as many layers of rhythm as possible – conga, glockenspiel, guitar, drum kit – he adds hand-clapping and piano:
Havens continued to release records every few years for a couple more decades. Cuts to the Chase came out in 1994. Among its tracks is “How the Nights Can Fly.” Havens’ rendition of this Bob Lind song has a dream-like quality, cloaked in velvety trumpet and strings and textured with some nice acoustic guitar riffs.
When Havens made the album Nobody Left to Crown in 2008, he had little decent health left to enjoy. In 2010 he had kidney surgery that he never quite recovered from, and he died of a heart attack in 2013. Nobody Left to Crown now stands as a fitting farewell.
About half the tracks are by Havens. But one of the highlights is Peter Yarrow’s “The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life),” which Yarrow had originally written for Peter, Paul, and Mary. Havens and Yarrow also had the chance to perform it together, although Havens sings it solo on this album.
The song is about how established society deals with a young man protesting war. One of the many things I like about this song is that the opening of each melodic phrase mimics (unintentionally?) the melody of “Candide’s Lament” from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. Yarrow’s lyrics are just as dark.
Richie Havens ended life as he had lived it: loving music and poetry and showing the world how it might heal itself.