On August 15,1969 black folk music singer Richie Havens opened the legendary Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York. Woodstock Music & Arts Festival was considered by many as the most pivotal point in mainstream music history. Havens was supposed to be the fifth act of the show, but due to a technical issue, he kicked off the festival for over 500,000 people. After his first song, Havens was asked to perform four more songs, including an impromptu version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which later became a cover song for the Woodstock movie. (Watch video of performance below.)
Raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn with eight siblings, Havens learned music from his father, a factory worker and nighttime piano player. The young musician was raised on the sounds of doo wop, but as he got older, he wanted to sing about social change. He began listening to artists like Fred Neil, Dino Valenti and Tom Paxton. Havens stood six and a half feet tall and recorded with a soft voice for a predominately white folk music audience.
It wasn’t an easy road for Havens. He and other musicians would play at local coffee houses, featuring 14-20 minute sets per night. The pay was by donation for many performances. Havens performed under those conditions for seven years. He was soon discovered by Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. In 1968, he released his debut album entitled “Mixed Bag” under the Verve/Folkways label.
Then came his Woodstock performance.
It was only a year later that Havens recorded a successful cover of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” in 1970. He soon launched a successful music and acting career. He starred as Othello in the 1974 rock musical “Catch My Soul” and appeared in “Greased Lightning” (1977) opposite Richard Pryor.
Havens took to the road, touring for nearly 40 years, only retiring in his late sixties. Havens co-wrote one of his more famous songs,”Handsome Johnny”, with actor Lou Gossett Jr. He released 21 albums throughout his career and presented his final album “Nobody Left to Crown” in 2008.
In 2009, Richie Havens returned to Woodstock for the 40th anniversary celebration, the place where he gained half a million fans in a three-hour set.
On April 22, 2013, Richie Havens died of a heart attack at his home in New Jersey. He was 72 years old. His ashes will be scattered at the scene of his first big performance at Woodstock, which is now Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.