By David Browne,
Richie Havens, who brought an earthy soulfulness to the folk scene of the Sixties and was the first act to hit the stage at Woodstock, died of a heart attack on Monday. He was 72 and was living in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Last month, Havens announced he would no longer be touring due to health issues.
From the beginning, when he played Village folk clubs in the mid-Sixties, Havens stood out due to more than just his imposing height (he was six-and-a-half feet tall) and his ethnicity (African-American in a largely white folk scene). 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.
Like many of his peers, Havens was a songwriter (he co-wrote one of his best-known songs, “Handsome Johnny,” with actor Lou Gossett Jr.). But Havens also knew a great contemporary song when he heard it, and 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,” “Here Comes the Sun”). “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.”