Further observations at the intersection of two American music giants
Richie Havens and Nina Simone had a lot in common, starting with their music’s underlying message, which is a cry for human freedom. Both had Native American heritage; Nina performances inspired Richie. She would invite him on stage to perform when she knew he was in the audience. They would sometimes go on the road together in caravans of musicians, touring American cities. If the three of us had never been to dinner together back in 1978, I don’t think I would have ever seen the parallels.
Their styles were far from the same. Nina Simone’s music portrayed her pain and fury, provoking attention and compliance. Ritchie Havens’ calm stage banter inspired immediate trust. He quietly evoked feelings of love, peace, and brotherhood in the hearts of his audiences.
Havens is mostly known worldwide for his role in opening the original Woodstock Festival, with his spontaneously composed song “Freedom.” It perfectly encapsulated the theme of the peace and love movement that drew a half million people from every corner of the USA. Four nights open to the sounds of nature, each other and the performers’ words, expressing what everyone was feeling about their lives.
It was as a live performer that Havens first earned widespread notice. Richie played the 1966 Newport Folk Festival; the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival; and the January 1968 Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall. During that time his albums: Mixed Bag and Something Else Again charted nationally. They were also his first to be promoted by the new label, Verve Forecast, a division of the mighty MGM. The album successes opened the door for Richie Havens. By decade’s end, he was in high demand in colleges across the country. “I must have played every campus in America at least three times,” he says, “grateful for students’ early support.”
Naturally, he was asked to play at Woodstock. But he never expected to find himself on stage as the opening act in front of those half-million pilgrims who had flocked to the Bethel Woods site of the Woodstock 1969 Music Festival. He was initially scheduled to go on stage after the audience was warmed up by other musicians. When no other group was able to get their equipment or themselves through the staggeringly dense crowds to the stage, Michael Laing the promoter begged Richie to go on first. His was the only group to arrive complete. And so the legend of Woodstock began when Richie Havens sang for about 3 hours going through his entire repertoire of tunes. Still, Laing asked him to continue. Ritchie looked at the sea of faces before him and thought how free everyone seemed. Spontaneously, he composed and sang the now-famous anthem of Woodstock: “Freedom.” In his many interviews, Ritchie cited, “…the freedom to release themselves from the boundaries of the past; to be themselves as they really were.”
But the first time that I saw him sing was on one of the two massive stages at the successful December 1968 Miami Pop Music Festival. It was half a year before Woodstock ’69, and an estimated 100,000 people attended. My friends from the Dick Charles Recording Studios and I were planning to return to New York by car after a week living on the Miami beaches during Christmas break. The road trip would take about 30 hours driving without stopping. And we especially could not linger in Georgia or the Carolinas with our long hair and bell bottoms (in case the local police found our NY plates interesting.)
Anyway, we came upon this poster a few times by the beach and just had to check it out before leaving Florida. I mean, what was a POP FESTIVAL anyway and the band line up looked interesting.
We parked in the race track where the festival was being held, bought tickets, and joined in the festivities. My friends pretty quickly got drunk, and I let myself get high, sampling whatever was being passed around in the crowd. Eventually, I became unmanageable.
Or was it the music, which was incredible. Joni Mitchell invited Graham Nash and Richie Havens onstage to sing “Get Together.” The bands were on their way to becoming superstars: Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead, Jose Feliciano, Country Joe & The Fish, Buffy Saint-Marie, Chuck Berry, Steppenwolf, Jr Walker & The All-Stars, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Flatt & Scruggs, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, The Box Tops, Canned Heat, The Turtles, Iron Butterfly, The Joe Tex Revue, Ian & Sylvia, The Grassroots, Charles Lloyd Quartet, Sweet Inspirations and James Cotton Blues Band.
The first time I remember ever hearing the Grateful Dead was with my ear to one of their speakers at the side of the stage. It wasn’t easy to leave. The music and drugs were flowing. And my friends had to separate me from another equally unmanageable young lady who I danced with. Somehow, I have always been the dedicated driver, and I didn’t let anyone down. When the boys fell asleep in their seats, I nearly turned right into the marsh because the highway seemed to go that way….but didn’t. Of course, we managed to arrive safely back in NY in time to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
I saw Richie again when he performed in the legendary Roslyn, Long Island club My Father’s Place. Every bit the professional, backstage after the show he greeted me with a warm smile and welcoming hug. Maybe remembering we’d met before or not, it didn’t matter, but it impressed my date.
Individual reviewers of Richie Havens’ Autobiography They Can’t Hide Us Anymore have slagged off the book as lacking in the details of his private life. Richie’s public disclosure of his reasonably charmed public life is just that: his public life. Reviewers who couldn’t dig up any “dirt” came away from the autobiography with nothing they couldn’t have found with any search engine. Starting to plan this article, I was also looking for any hidden stories of abuse, broken hearts, broken dreams, or sad regrets. I didn’t find any. One thing I came across was a 1999 review. It was titled: “The not-a-biography of Richie Havens: The man who sang “Freedom” at Woodstock tells his life story, but forgets to include his life.” The autobiography “is apparently another in a long list of credits designed to boost his image.”
So I reread the autobiography. This time looking for his ‘private life.’ On page after page, Richie very simply lays out his natural philosophy and positive feelings about living. He describes his charmed life. When Havens talks about connecting with hundreds of famous and talented performers, it wasn’t boasting. Richie Havens really did have a vast network of creative friends.
He came of age in the late 1950s and early 60s in Greenwich Village. It was the mecca at the time of the great music awakening. The flowering of post-war baby boomer’s talents. Far from burnishing his image, the autobiography simply shows how excited and grateful he was to share music and learn from the very talented roots of rock and roll. The performers who made the new music truly revolutionary.
Dropping out of high school, he painted portraits in Washington Square making relatively decent money which paid for food and rent. For all that steady income, he wasn’t satisfied. A friend gave him a guitar. He taught himself how to play in what became his own signature style. And with his distinctive gravelly voice, he began singing for tips in the various cafes that lined the streets of Village. His influences were not yet the celebrities they were to become. He includes personal anecdotes about performers I wish I had known and worked with, including John Hammond Jr., Odetta, Tim Hardin, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Taj Mahal, Tim Buckley, Jose Feliciano, John Sebastian, Dave Van Ronk, Josh White Sr, Josh White Jr, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Salvador Dali, Manny Roth (owner of the Cafe Wha?) Howie Solomon (owner of Cafe au Go Go), Joe Marra (owner of the Night Owl), Albert Grossman (Dylan’s and Peter Paul and Mary’s Manager), John Court and Clay Cole (local TV Music Show host). Plus comedians Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers and Dick Gregory, all of whom were playing the same local circuits.
To anyone still wondering about the private life of Richie Havens: look no further than his passionately caring for the young, the mentally challenged, and the environment.
During the 1970s he acquired a houseboat on the Hudson River. Living on the boat, he hired former Navy Seal, Michael Sandlofer to maintain it. At Michael’s suggestion, together they founded the Northwind Undersea Institute. It was an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island, part of New York City. The Institute also helped nurse injured and ill marine animals. In 1978, he wrote a song to celebrate the peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt ending thirty years of war. In October of that year he appeared at a the Nueiva music festival in the desert on behalf of the peace.
VIDEO: Richie Havens Neviot Nueiva 78 78
In the 1980s, encouraging inner city youths, and especially “gang members,” to do something positive with their time, he created an environmental organization called the Natural Guard with branches in Connecticut and California. The goal was to improve the environment and improve themselves in the process.
Richie Havens grew up in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Until his late teens, his neighbors were immigrants from all over the world. As he tells it, everyone got along, and with little or no fear of violence. But eventually, more and more of the neighbors moved to the suburbs until the tax base they left behind was so low that the schools deteriorated. Gangs of teenagers staked out territories on different street corners. Richie Havens had a strategy to get by without trouble and get along with everyone. He joined the Doo-Wop groups that many gangs formed as he already had a deep, distinctive voice. His home was filled with the sound of his father’s jazz records and his mother’s show tunes. (One of the Doo-Wop groups he was a part of even won a radio contest.) Those early experiences, learning to get along within a diverse environment became the basis for his life’s work in song and deed.
Richie showed people how to communicate, to listen to others, and trust them. He listened with his heart. He listened and related to children with disabilities when others ignored them. His private and public life was one based on simplicity, reasonable purity of motive, dedication, the brotherhood of Man, honesty, the privacy of home life, friendship, spirituality, and most of all, FREEDOM.
VIDEO: Richie Havens at Glastonbury 1987