Brooklyn born and raised, Richie Havens (1941-2013) began hanging out in Greenwich Village in 1959, as a street portrait artist and sometime busker. By 1961, he was a familiar face in the folk clubs, playing alongside Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Dylan and Dino Valenti. Despite this folkie pedigree, a tour with Nina Simone taught him the power of song interpretation, a lesson he never forgot. His unforgettable, partly impromptu opening set at Woodstock in 1969 brought him fame and there was no looking back after that. PKM’s John Kruth interviewed Havens over a long period of time and pulls together this remembrance of a much-loved man and his musical legacy.
I first interviewed Richie Havens in November 1984, meeting him backstage after a show at the Bottom Line, where he effortlessly charmed the crowd, even in the wake of Darlene Love (best known for her lead vocal on the Phil Spector-produced “He’s a Rebel) and her full-blown pop and soul review. We talked about jewelry – the stuff made from bones and claws and semi-precious stones and worn for their “mojo” or “medicine” as much as their esthetic – the kind of talismans found around the necks and fingers of musicians like Dr. John, David Amram, Don Cherry and himself – those given to a bit of divine excess.
He gave me his number and we wound up talking for the best part of the afternoon at his manager’s midtown office. While everyone else was hustling, Richie sat calmly, across the table, smoking cigarettes, answering the slightly nervous questions of a rookie music journalist. In the room was a bookcase packed with esoteric knowledge – volumes on astrology, voodoo, alchemy, the pyramids, astral projection, along with the Talmud and Bible, the Tao, the Gita, Buddhism and Houdini.
Anyone familiar with Richie’s smoky, soulful vocals knew he had a big, warm heart. It was good to know he had an expansive and curious mind as well.
The last time I saw Richie Havens, he was strolling down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. With rings on every finger and turquoise amulets hanging from his neck, carrying himself with the regal countenance of an African king. All that was missing was a jeweled crown adorning his graying, balding noggin. But he had no need for such ostentatious bling. Richie Havens had been royal for years.
We sat down to talk and sip cappuccino at New York’s classic Italian coffeehouse, Caffé Reggio. It was May, 2009. What follows is a mash-up of our two conversations, and some new thoughts and quotes from his friend and guitarist, singer/songwriter Cliff Eberhardt.
“This is still the hub!” Havens said, happy to be back in the Village again. “I’ve watched it turn over about three times now, beginning back in ’61 when things started to change. The Gaslight was right over there. And on that corner used to be the Café Id. Some of us are still here… The ones who never figured out when to quit!”
Havens’ musical career began in the late Fifties, singing baritone and arranging vocals for a doo-wop group called the Last Men (the name inspired by the atmosphere of impending doom during the Eisenhower years).
“I never sang the words, although I wrote a lot of them,” Richie recalled. “Between 13 and 19 years old, I sang on street corners and at amateur contests… not professionally. We won [the amateur night contest at] the Apollo three times in a row and won a contract with a record company but our [lead] singer’s father didn’t want him singing rock ‘n’ roll. So, he wasn’t signing anything.”
Living just four miles away, in Williamsburg [long before it was fashionable], Richie claimed he “never saw or touched the island of Manhattan” until turning 16. “The only thing I knew about New York was what I saw in the movies. It was a magic land that could’ve been 20,000 miles away.”
Havens began hanging out in Greenwich Village by 1959, drawn by its burgeoning bohemian/political atmosphere. Painting portraits and selling them to tourists on street corners, he claimed he could bring in $300 on a good night. “I’m not kidding!” he said. “In ‘59, the rent for my apartment was about 50 bucks a month.”
Watching the folksingers around the Village inspired Havens to give it a shot. “If you could sit out on the street and do portraits you can sit out on the street and sing,” he figured. “I was making good money with my art and all of a sudden, I was getting spare change in a basket, making maybe a couple dollars for playing music. I couldn’t understand it. But I just wanted to play.”
Enter Fred Neil who heard Richie singing along with him in the audience at the Café Wha? one night. “Take this damn guitar home and learn how to play it and then come back,” he told Havens. Richie’s unusual approach to playing guitar, in which he barred chords over the neck with his thumb, seemed exotic, like something that might have begun distant lands like Africa, Hawaii or maybe the Bahamas. But it just developed naturally, of its own accord, in his Brooklyn bedroom. Havens intuitively tuned the six strings to an open D chord, “a chord that I heard in my head when I was singing in a gospel group in Brooklyn,” he said.
At first, he played the guitar “flat on my lap,” Richie recalled, “and barred chords, almost like a dobro or Hawaiian guitar, basically using my thumb as a steel bar. Eventually I held the guitar straight up. [And] taught myself how to play all these songs I’d been singing for a while. They were all mostly three chords.”
Havens’ rhythmic approach to the instrument was completely unique: “This is the educated leg,” he told me, and slapped his left thigh. “The foot at the end of this leg has got to be about 700,000 steps ahead of this one. This one [the right] just sits on the rung.
“There’s a juxtaposition between the double and triple rhythms [he strummed on the guitar] and the ballad I’m singing,” he pointed out.
Richie, like many musicians of his generation was inspired by all things Indian during the mid-Sixties – from fashion to vegetarianism, to yoga, but particularly the music. He even picked up the sitar for a short time (check out the cover of his second album, Something Else Again, where he sat cross-legged, eyes closed, lost in Samadhi while his fingers chased themselves up the giant neck of the instrument).
There was a strong connection between the rhythmic complexity of Indian music and Havens’ unique approach to strumming the guitar. At a time when guitarists like George Harrison and Roger McGuinn looked beyond the usual bag of blues and country riffs to the sitar for inspiration, Havens’ intense strumming was like a Western version of the raga, while he employed complex rhythms that rivaled any tabla player.
“I’m one great bangin’ guy,” Richie laughed. “I’m still a frustrated drummer. That’s how I learned to play the guitar… But there’s always a suspended note which stays there, even though the chords change,” he explained. “It holds the various rhythms together. It’s the tabla, the sitar and the drone all at once.
Havens’ early repertoire was, as he said, “a mixed bag” of songs by Don Gibson, Fred Neil’s “Tear Down the Walls,” and “The Dolphins” and Dino Valenti’s “Get Together,” which Valenti wrote in the late 1950s, years before it was recorded by the Youngbloods and became a 1960s’ anthem of peace and brotherhood.
Then there was a tune by some guy named “Gene Michaels” and Richie’s debut at Gerdes’ Folk City on a Monday night hoot. “They actually paid people to play!” Havens laughed “I had recently heard a song from a friend of mine that completely blew my mind. It took me eight days to learn it ‘cause I couldn’t get the structure. He said he learned it from a guy called Gene Michaels. So, I decided to sing it that night at Folk City.”
Havens took the stage and announced, “This song was written by a guy named Gene Michaels from the Midwest”. He began to sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” “The entire audience went like this [his jaw dropped while his eyes bugged out]. “After I’m done, everybody jumped up and applauded. I’m trying to get to the basement, to the dressing room when this guy in the corner is like cryin’ and says, ‘That was the best version of that song I ever heard.’ As I get to the door, Dave Van Ronk says to me, ‘Do you know who that was? He’s the guy who wrote that song!’ That was a helluva way to meet Bob Dylan.”
Richie’s first real break came when he was invited to join a ten-day package tour of folk, roots and jazz musicians that featured Nina Simone, jazz flautist Herbie Mann, and Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria.
“This was my first time out of town,” Richie recalled. “We were at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., doing three shows a day. Every time Nina went on, I’d watch her from the side of the stage. I listened to jazz a lot. The singer who most influenced me was Nina Simone, mostly through the suggestion of how she sang, [and] taking other people’s songs and singing them the only way you can.”
Like Nina, Richie always had a way of making a song uniquely his own, no matter how singular or great the original version might be. “If it wasn’t for her, I would have always respected the songwriter’s way of doing it,” he said.
While Simone’s presence, powerful voice and dynamic delivery were a major influence on Havens, it was ultimately her process of reinvention that inspired him to re-work traditional numbers like “Run Shaker Life,” as well as Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” which climbed the charts to # 16 in 1971.
Listen sometime to his arrangement of Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Employing flowing major seventh chords, Havens transforms an old-timey medicine show chord progression into a beautiful sweeping ballad of heart-felt regret.
“I was on MGM/Verve, which was a big jazz label back then,” he said. “They didn’t know what to call me. My music has always been a mixed bag. The songs I chose educated me. That’s why I choose the songs that really move me. And I’m just repeating the movement I felt when they moved me.”
He continued: “I only write when it comes. So, it’s very much in the present, inspirationally. When I write a song, it comes out all at once, finished. And basically it goes on the stage tomorrow. That’s the way it works. You cannot interrupt your consciousness. It all comes from the sub-conscious. It can happen anywhere. It could be in a telephone booth [that is, if you can find one anymore…].”
Spontaneity and improvisation were not only key elements in Richie’s life and performance style but at the heart of his songwriting as well. “I just sit down, pick up the guitar, open up and just let go. An hour later I’m writing down the verse and the chorus. I just hear it in my head. Sometimes I have to just sit with it until it’s done. It has to be correct.”
Back to the Nina Simone saga: On the second night of the tour, Nina’s assistant told Richie she wanted to meet him. Simone wanted to know if he could play her song “Sinner Man.”
“For whatever reason, she didn’t say a word to me for the next six shows. Not one word. We had three more gigs to go,” Havens recalled. Then Nina’s assistant suddenly reappeared, this time in a panic: ‘Richie, she’s calling you! She’s up there playing. Get the hell up there.’ I walked over to the curtain and she’s playing Bach – ‘deedle deedle, deedle da da da, singing ‘Richie, Richie come to the stage and bring your guitar…’ I almost fainted. The minute I hit that stool, we just took off with ‘Sinner Man’. When she hit that thing (the piano), you’d better be there. We blew it up. It was the first write up I ever had. It was so far out. That lady was magic! She could make you listen to what she had to say. I always wished she’d made an album of just piano. She was a Julliard girl and had been in the classical world.”
Another of Havens’ inspirations back in his early days was the mercurial songwriter/guitarist Dino Valenti, who, after years of kicking around as a solo artist (and doing prison time for pot possession) fronted the psychedelic jam band Quicksilver Messenger Service in the early Seventies. Richie fondly remembered Dino as the true embodiment of the bohemian troubadour of his day.
“Like Freddie Neil, Dino was below the radar and really shaped the scene. He’d spend a month or two here [New York] and then go to San Francisco. This was back in ’58, ’59, when beatniks were still around, when Ginsberg used to read his poetry at the Gaslight. Around ’65 he went out to California and had surgery for a brain tumor. He had the surgery, but it was his music that actually healed him. He was so passionate.”
“Dino was [always] looking for the perfect bass player. One night he went to see these two bands playing in a club and as he was watching the second band he goes, ‘There’s my bass player!’ He goes over talk to him after the show and discovers it’s his son! He hadn’t seen him in years! He’d left him when he was just a child!”
Fate also liked to play a few pranks on Richie as well: “After my set at the Berkeley Folk Festival [summer 1967], they asked me to be on this panel about show biz in this big auditorium,” Havens recalled. “So, I’m sitting there, listening to all these guys – promoters and lawyers and there’s me, the artist. I’d never done one of these things before. I guess I was supposed to say something so I finally said, ‘If you take away the artists there wouldn’t be a music business.’ Afterwards this guy comes up to me, and said, ‘Y’know Richie, you were really right.’ And he tells me, ‘I hope to work with you sometime.’ It was Bill Graham. Two hours later, I’m back at the hotel when I get a phone call. It’s Bill. He says, ‘Richie, I need to ask you a favor. Pink Floyd is supposed to be here to play but they’re stuck at the airport with all this equipment that I told those assholes to leave at home [Laughed]. I’m gonna kill them when they get here, but could you sit in until they arrive?’ So that was a good break. It was really a magic time.”
Throughout his career Havens has found himself in some amazing predicaments that most folks would have no clue how to handle, but his indomitable spirit and openness and ability to improvise in the moment always saw him through, particularly one August afternoon back in 1969.
“It happened in Bethel, New York. Do you know what Bethel means?” Havens asked. “House of God! It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Look at all the festivals that followed Woodstock in the Seventies. You can’t make anything like that happen. It was truly amazing. I’ve often seen chaos create the most perfect beauty. It never does what we want it to do. It just goes on its own and we can only trail along with it.
“It was the highest of the high,” Havens exclaimed. “I went there expecting nothing. I came in the back door, up Route 17, around 5:30 in the morning, thinking there was going to be all this traffic but there was nobody on the road. By the time I got there, there were already 500,000 people sitting there in the field, waiting. Some of them had been camped in the woods for a week and a half. I wondered if it was going to be a concert or a spectacle to witness but people had the best time of their lives. The next thing I know I heard this sound that turned out to be a helicopter coming down in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, to take me over to the field. I had two guys – there were two guitars and some conga drums. I said, ‘How are we gonna do this?’ The pilot said, ‘It’ll work, it’ll work.’ I was looking down under my feet at the field below, thinking about Vietnam and how it was going to look on the front page of the newspaper the next day. I was thinkin’ – ‘wow, we did it, we’re over this hill’ [the struggle for civil rights, Nixon, the Vietnam War, etc.]. Everything was shut down. There was the freedom we had been talking about for all those years. So, we landed by the stage, which they were still building. What they did to me was really funny. I was going to be 5th on the bill when [festival organizer] Michael [Lang] comes up to me and says, ‘Richie, man would you go on?’ I said, ‘You want me to go on first?!’ The concert was already like seven hours late. I said, ‘I’ll see you in 15,’ and was gone. I took off over the hill. [Laughed]. He catches up with me and says, ‘Hey Richie, man, you gotta do this for me.’
“A group from California called It’s A Beautiful Day was supposed to go on first. We went up on the stage [Richie’s band in the late 60’s, early ‘70’s included conguero Daniel Ben Zebulon and lead guitarist Paul “Deano” Williams] and opened up with ‘Handsome Johnny.’
Havens had played with Williams since 1962. “We grew up in Brooklyn together,” Richie recalled “I went to school with his brothers.”
“Sitting on that stool up there, I [was] looking out at this smorgasbord of people thinking, ‘that’s it – we won!’ After my 40 minutes, Michael comes up to me and says, ‘Uh, Richie… Could you do four more songs?’ Well, sure, I was havin’ fun. Next thing I know we’re walking off the stage again and Michael says, ‘Richie, four more?’ I went back six times. I played for two hours and forty-five minutes! That’s when ‘Freedom’ just came [to me]. It was based on an old British hymn.”
While 1967’s Mixed Bag kick-started Richie’s career, his sweat-soaked performance at Woodstock made him a star. Since then, his repertoire essentially remained the same message-wise. His songs were always prayers for peace, love and brotherhood.
“When I was 15, I saw him play ‘Freedom’ in the movie Woodstock which was ridiculous! I already had Mixed Bag and a poster of him over my bed. I bought all of his records and learned all of his songs,” said Cliff Eberhardt, singer/songwriter and former guitarist with Havens.
“One night in ’86 I was playing the open mike at the Bitter End, and he was there. My manager, at that point, Doug Yaeger, who also worked with Richie, told him to come down and see me. I had no idea. I saw him standing by the soundboard and almost wet my pants. I got off the stage and he said, ‘Hey man, I’m going to Europe for two weeks and I need a guitar player and opening act.’ I said, ‘I’ll have to check my calendar.’ And he burst out laughing.
“I never met anyone like him in my life. Nobody had spirit like that! The energy coming off that guy, his presence… Everybody would turn around and look at him.
“So, we’re about to play our first gig together and I asked him when are we gonna rehearse? And he said, ‘I don’t rehearse!’ I said, ‘What’s the first song?’ ‘What’s the key?’ He said, ‘I dunno!’ The funny thing about Richie was, he didn’t know what chord he was playing… He did not know!” Cliff chuckled. “Richie was the only person I ever met who truly lived in the moment. He just made shit up on stage!
“Playing with Richie made me a much better musician. It taught me to shut the fuck up and listen. That was his gift to me. We became really close friends. Eventually I got signed [to Windham Hill Records] and had to leave the tour. He said, Why don’t you write a duet we can sing on your record?’ I wrote ‘The Long Road’ and we did it in one take, no rehearsal. He heard the song once, had the words in front of him and we hit it live. His voice was from the earth!
“In ’88, we did the Woodstock Reunion tour with Canned Heat, and I played guitar with Richie and Melanie. He was definitely my mentor,” Eberhardt said reverently.
The last time I spoke with Richie was in the late spring of 2009, nearly 40 years after he sang “Handsome Johnny” and “Freedom” to the Woodstock Nation. I wondered about his thoughts for the future… Did he feel the country had progressed since the cultural revolution of the 1960s?
“Absolutely! Thank God or I’d be living in a cave right now,” he laughed, deep and resonant. “The state of the union is up to the people, for the first time in our lives.’ he firmly replied. “We got messed up, not only by fear, but by all of these divisions. Show me where the ‘United’ States of America is. You can’t! We are now citizens of ‘my state.’ My state is California,” he pointed out. “In Texas they have different laws than in ‘my state,’ California. How can this be? Is America a country of United States or not? We thought we had sit-ins before! Wait till we see what’s coming and how peaceful they’ll be next time because we’ve learned something. It’s time to turn the pancake over and make it happen.”