Folk singer Richie Havens dead at 72

Story highlights

  • Havens told CNN once that he always had music in his life
  • The Brooklyn, New York, native, gained attention at Woodstock
  • Stephen Stills says Havens was on fire when he played
  • His cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" rose on the pop charts in 1970

Famed folk singer Richie Havens, the opening act at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, died Monday of a sudden heart attack, his publicist said. He was 72.

Havens, who retired three years ago, toured for more than 30 years and recorded 30 albums.

Havens told Billboard that his breakthrough at Woodstock came after another artist's equipment got stuck in traffic. He was supposed to be the fifth act.

"It was 5 o'clock and nothing was happening yet," Havens told Billboard. "I had the least instruments (to set up on stage) and the least people (in his band)."

So Havens went on and performed for 40 minutes, as planned. Organizers asked him to do four more songs, he told Billboard.

"I went back and did that, then it was, 'Four more songs...' and that kept happening 'til two hours and 45 minutes later, I had sung every song I know," he said.

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Havens, a Brooklyn, New York, native, told CNN in 1999 that music enabled him to leave his rough neighborhood to head to Greenwich Village and the music scene there.

Music was always a part of his life.

"I believe I inherited my sense of music from my father. My father was an ear piano player; he could just hear something and play it," he recalls. "I came up in Brooklyn singing doo-wop music from the time I was 13 to the time I was 20. That music served a purpose of keeping a lot of people out of trouble, and also it was a passport from one neighborhood to another."

His inspiration for songs about social change and protest came when he heard artists like Fred Neil, Dino Valenti and Tom Paxton. That's when he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

"It was the songs that actually changed my life," he says. "The songs that I heard were so much different than the doo-wop kind of thing. They were just so powerful. Finally I decided, 'I've got to do this.'"

Before Woodstock, his nights were filled with playing as often as possible to make a few dollars.

"We played three coffeehouses a night, 14 sets a night, 20-minute sets, pass the basket, stay alive," he told CNN. "I was there seven and a half years, every day. It was the most incredibly magic, magic time."

After Havens gained attention at Woodstock, he recorded a soulful-voiced cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," which rose on the pop charts in 1970.

Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash said Havens was an inspiration for the natural gravel in his singing voice. He called Havens a passionate performer.

"He lit fire when he started playing within the first song and burned exactly the same way throughout his set. And it never stopped, it never changed," Stills said.

He added that he thought Havens' style was probably a little too arcane to appeal to a mass audience.

"But he sure knew what to do when they were begging for someone to go on first, when all those people showed up at Woodstock," Stills said.

Havens returned to Woodstock for the 40th anniversary festival in 2009.

"While his family greatly appreciates that Richie's many fans are also mourning this loss, they do ask for privacy during this difficult time," a statement from his publicist, Carrie Lombardi, said.

Billboard reported Havens died in New Jersey, leaving behind four daughters and five grandchildren.

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