US folk musician Richie Havens has died at the age of 72.
Celebrated for having opened the historic 1969 Woodstock music festival, his improvised version of the gospel song “Motherless Child” evolved into “Freedom” and became a hippie generation anthem.
His family said a public memorial would be announced later. In the meantime, the family asked for privacy.
“Beyond his music, those who have met Richie Havens will remember his gentle and compassionate nature, his light humour and his powerful presence” a family statement said.
Who was Havens?
Born in Brooklyn, Richie Havens was the eldest of nine children. At an early age, he began organising his neighbourhood friends into street corner doo-wop groups and was performing with The McCrea Gospel Singers at 16.
At age 20, Havens left Brooklyn and went looking for artistic stimulation in Greenwich Village. “I saw the Village as a place to escape to, in order to express yourself”, he recalled. “I had first gone there during the Beatnik days of the 1950s to perform poetry, then I drew portraits for two years and stayed up all night listening to folk music in the clubs. It took a while before I thought of picking up a guitar.”
His Woodstock appearance proved to be a major turning point in his career. As the festival’s first performer, he held the crowd for nearly three hours and he was called back for several encores.
Having run out of tunes, he improvised a song based on the old spiritual “Motherless Child” that became “Freedom”. The subsequent Woodstock movie release helped Havens reach a worldwide audience. He also appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival in late August 1969.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Havens continued a world touring schedule and a steady release of albums. In 2000, he published They Can’t Hide Us Anymore, an autobiography co-written with Steve Davidowitz
On March 20, 2012, Havens announced on his Facebook page that he would stop touring after 45 years due to health concerns.