In 1969, the first musician to take the stage at the Woodstock Festival was a man named Richie Havens. He died at the age of 72, yesterday, after a heart attack at his New Jersey home.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this look back, beginning with Woodstock where Havens - with the help of a churning guitar and gravely voice - sang, and sang, and sang - longer than anyone expected, including him.


NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It was a moment Richie Havens could laugh about nine years ago. He told NPR many of the other now legendary musicians had gotten stuck in Woodstock's equally legendary traffic jam. Festival organizers panicked and would not let him leave the stage.

RICHIE HAVENS: Go back, sing more three more. There's nobody here yet to go on. You know, it was like go back and sing three more - this happened six times, so I sang every song I knew.

ULABY: And even one he didn't. Havens improvised "Freedom" before an audience of some 600,000 people.


HAVENS: (Singing) Freedom, freedom sometimes I see you like a motherless child...

ULABY: Richie Havens was born in Brooklyn. He grew up singing doo-wop on the streets and gospel at church. He and his friends were artsy kids who got labeled beatniks.

HAVENS: So we went to Manhattan to see what a beatnik was and found out it was us.


ULABY: Havens was enthralled by the poets, musicians and artists who were challenging American culture from Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the coffeehouse scene.

HAVENS: Just about every night, Kerouac was there and quite a few guys.

ULABY: Guys like Allen Ginsberg, who noticed the kids from Brooklyn scribbling in their notebooks at the famed coffeehouse, the Gaslight.

HAVENS: And finally he says, so what's in those books. And we said poetry, you know. He said get up there. So I ended up on stage in the Gaslight.

ULABY: Richie Havens attracted plenty of notice as a black musician in the largely white folk world.

HAVENS: Why not blues? why not jazz? Why not rhythm and blues? Well, it's because I believe all music is folk music.


HAVENS: (Singing) Hey looky yonder, tell me what's that you see, marching to the fields of Concord? It looks like Handsome Johnny with a musket in his hand, marching to the Concord War...

ULABY: Riche Havens recorded some 30 albums but his biggest hit, from 1971, was written by someone else. He imbued it with his inimitable growly(ph) joy.


HAVENS: (Singing) Little darling, it's been a long, long lonely winter. Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun and I say, it's all right...

ULABY: Havens dabbled in the movies in the 1970s appearing alongside Richard Pryor in the comedy "Greased Lightning." And he was a funny mixture of pragmatist and idealist. He voiced commercials for McDonalds and Budweiser. But his environmental activism led him to found organizations that helped inner-city kids understand the ecology of the world around them. And Richie Havens took extraordinary pride in connecting with audiences and hardly missed a weekend on stage.

HAVENS: For me, spiritually, I am singing to the people I live on this planet with - all of them.

ULABY: And that was Richie Haven's calling. He remembered his grandmother asking him, as a child, what he wanted to be when he grew up.

HAVENS: And I said like to meet everybody in the whole world.


HAVENS: I think I'm doing it.

ULABY: Richie Havens told an interviewer in 1996, that in spite of a half century of performing, he never considered himself to be in show business. I, he said, am in the communications business.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


HAVENS: (Singing) Little darling, hmm, I feel see the ice is slowly melting. Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear...

GREENE: This is NPR News.


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