Five reasons Woodstock star Richie Havens stood out

Apr 23, 2013

The man who opened the famous festival with a three-hour set has died of a heart attack at 72

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US folk musician Richie Havens has died of a heart attack at the age of 72. Here are five things you might not know about the man who opened the 1969 Woodstock music festival with a legendary three-hour set.

He always stood out, even in his early days on the Greenwich Village folk scene: Brooklyn-born Havens was 6.5ft tall and one of the few black performers on the predominantly white folk scene that sprang up in New York's most bohemian district. "He played his acoustic guitar with an open tuning and in a fervent, rhythmic style, and he sang in a sonorous, gravel-road voice that connected folk, blues and gospel," writes Rolling Stone.

He had a great ear for a cover song: Havens wrote his own songs, but he made his name covering and rearranging songs by Bob Dylan (Just Like a Woman, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue) and the Beatles (With a Little Help from My Friends, Eleanor Rigby). "Music is the major form of communication," he told Rolling Stone in 1968. "It's the commonest vibration, the people's news broadcast, especially for kids."

Woodstock was a turning point in his career: Havens wasn't supposed to be the opening act at Woodstock, but the band Sweetwater got stuck in traffic on the way to the site. The festival's organiser Michael Lang practically "begged" Havens to go on as the massive crowd was getting restless. After six songs, Havens was running short of inspiration and began improvising a song around the word 'Freedom'. He eventually segued into the gospel song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and the performance became a highlight of the epic Woodstock movie.

His unique singing voice was partly due to his dentures: Havens wore false teeth and often used to remove them to get the “raspy wail of a vocal” that became his trademark. He didn't have his top row of teeth in at Woodstock, but, in later years, he began performing with his dentures in place and reportedly became much easier to understand when he spoke to the audience between songs.

He had a second career as an actor: In 1972, Havens landed a role in the London stage production of The Who's rock opera Tommy. He played the lead role in the 1974 movie Catch My Soul – which was inspired by Othello - and co-starred with comedian Richard Pryor in 1977's Greased Lightning, says The Guardian. Havens also had parts in 1987's Hearts of Fire starring Bob Dylan and Todd Haynes' 2007 Bob Dylan-inspired film I'm Not There, in which he sang the Dylan composition Tombstone Blues.

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