Today marks what would have been folk icon Richie Havens‘ birthday. The singer-songwriter-guitarist passed away in April 2013 at the age of 72. Havens, who was born in Brooklyn, first made a name for himself with his distinct guitar playing and gruff vocals performing in the Greenwich Village folk circuit in the mid-1960s. He will forever be remembered though for his energetic performance at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair and appearance in the subsequent documentary.
Havens, who was tasked with opening the festival, was left to play for nearly two hours due to the difficulties that many of the acts were having getting to the grounds. Havens capped his set with an improvised new song – “Freedom,” that was based on the old spiritual “Motherless Child” – which would become his signature tune.
This edition of Sunday Cinema celebrates the life Richie Havens, who in addition to writing his own songs was also well-known for his interpretations of those by many of this contemporaries.
First up we head to Havens famous Woodstock performance for his version of The Beatles’ “Strawbery Fields Forever.” Havens had a longstanding history of covering the Fab Four dating back to his 1966 debut album Mixed Bag, which featured a version of “Eleanor Rigby.” Havens set that early evening included two additional Beatles songs with him also offering up “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Hey Jude.”
Next, we head to a 1974 live performance that Havens recorded at the BBC Studios in Newcastle, England, which was later broadcast on television across the pond. His set that night found him mixing originals with a healthy dose of covers. Havens delivers a gorgeous slowed down version of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” taking the gospel-tinged soul tune and turning into a plaintive folk ballad. He also served up a must-hear pairing of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” that segues straight into Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” adding extra heartache to the two love songs.
From there we have Havens’ appearance on the Canadian cult TV series The All-Night Show from the summer of 1981. After some noodling on the guitar, he performs an extended take on James Taylor’s signature song “Fire And Rain.”
Finally, we close things out Havens interpreting a pair of Dylan songs, an artist he continually covered throughout his 40+ year career. First, is an un-dated solo television performance for Power Play of “License To Kill,” from Zimmy’s 1983 release Infidels. Then we head to his set from Mountain Jam in 2009 for his take on “All Along The Watchtower.”