Richie Havens, opening act at Woodstock, dies

Above: Video of Richie Havens performing "Freedom" at Woodstock in 1969.

Folk legend Richie Havens, who was the opening act at the 1969 Woodstock festival, died on Monday of a heart attack in his home in Jersey City. He was 72. 

The Roots Agency, who represented Havens, announced the news of his death on their website.

In an obituary, Bloomberg News recounts the story of how Havens -- who was scheduled to play fifth on Woodstock's opening day -- was pressed into service as the festival's opening act:

Havens and two members of his band were pressed into urgent service as other musicians -- including the planned opening act, the folk-rock band Sweetwater -- fought traffic on the roads leading to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Woodstock, New York.

Havens had been among the first to arrive at the performers’ staging area in nearby Liberty, New York. As the afternoon wore on and the crowd, estimated at 500,000 people, waited for the show to begin, concert organizers persuaded Havens, along with his guitarist, Paul Williams, and his drummer, Daniel Ben Zebulon, to squeeze into a helicopter with their two conga drums and two guitars for the quick ride to the festival stage.

“I had the least instruments and the least guys,” Havens explained in a 2008 interview with Bloomberg Television, “and they said, ‘Richie, would you go over now?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s about time, I’ve been here since 5 o’clock in the morning.’”

Havens and his band played for hours, performing encore after encore while festival organizers waited for the next act to arrive. By about the sixth or seventh encore, as festival co-founder Michael Lang recalled it, Havens had run through every song he knew. And then he did something extraordinary. Here's how Havens told it to Lang, who quoted him in his book The Road To Woodstock:

“I start strumming my guitar and the word freedom comes out of my mouth as FREE-dom, FREE-dom, with a rhythm of its own. My foot takes over and drives my guitar into a faster, more powerful rhythm. I don’t know where this is going, but it feels right and somehow I find myself blending it into an old song -- ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ -- a great spiritual my grandmother used to sing to me as a hymn when I was growing up in Brooklyn.”

The performance at Woodstock was, according to an obituary in the New York Times, the turning point in Havens's career. 

"Everything in my life, and so many others, is attached to that train," he said in an interview that year with The Associated Press.

Havens's last studio album, Nobody Left To Crown, was released in 2008.