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Richie Havens: 10 Facts About the ‘Woodstock’ Legend

240-remembering-richie-havens-musician-legacyPerhaps the ultimate tribute to guitarist-folksinger Richie Havens, who died on April 22 at age 72 in Jersey City, N.J., is that a Beatle once likened himself to Havens. In a 1971 Rolling Stone interview, John Lennon initially garbled Havens’ name, confusing him with the Mexican-American singer who did “La Bomba.” But it was clear that he dug Havens’ unorthodox, self-taught guitar style.

I think there’s a guy called Richie Valens, no, Richie Havens, does he play very strange guitar? He’s a black guy that was on a concert and sang “Strawberry Fields” or something. He plays like one chord all the time. He plays a pretty funky guitar. But he doesn’t seem to be able to play in the real terms at all. I’m like that.

Havens – like bluesman Albert King, who taught himself to play guitar upside down because he was left-handed – was one of those totally organic, iconoclastic musicians who found his own unique sound out of necessity. He had large hands that would have been better suited for a career in the NBA than for playing guitar, and that seeming liability forced him to develop his own unorthodox “open D” tuning, which enabled him to play chord patterns that couldn’t be done with conventional tuning.

Join the discussion: If you could have front-row seats to any concert, who would it be?

Havens’ percussive, driving style was augmented by a rich-toned voice that was as powerful as it was unaffected, even when he was interpreting others’ songs. His rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was the best cover version ever, according to Dylan himself. Havens had his biggest radio hit with distinctive reinvention of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” which he performs in this 1971 TV appearance:


But Havens’ shining moment was the Woodstock festival in 1969, when a fortuitous twist of fate – a traffic jam that delayed the scheduled opening act, Sweetwater – forced the promoters to reshuffle the lineup and put Havens up on stage first. He was supposed to play just four songs, but because other performers were delayed, he ended up doing 10 – including an improvisational encore, “Freedom,” that he fashioned out of the African-American spiritual “Motherless Child.”


Here are some other intriguing facts about an American original:


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Photo: Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage/Getty Images