NEW YORK – Richie Havens, the folk singer and guitarist who was the first performer at Woodstock, died Monday, his family said. He was 72.
Havens died of a heart attack, the family said it a statement. Further details on his death were not immediately disclosed.
Havens was known for his crafty guitar work and cover songs, including his well-received impersonation of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.”
His performance at the three-day 1969 Woodstock Festival, where headliners included Jimi Hendrix, was a turning point in his career. He was the first act to hit the stage, performing for nearly three hours. His performance of “Freedom” – based from the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” – became an anthem.
Havens returned to the site during Woodstock’s 40th anniversary in 2009.
“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 had originally been scheduled to go on fifth at Woodstock but had been bumped up because of travel delays. Festival producer Michael Lang said in the book “The Road to Woodstock” that he chose Havens “because of his calm but powerful demeanor.”
Havens’ website said he had kidney surgery years ago and that he never recovered enough to perform concerts like he used to.
Havens, who was born in Brooklyn, performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. Havens, who released his debut “Mixed Bag” in 1967, has released more than 25 albums. His last album was 2008’s “Nobody Left to Crown.” He also started his own record label called Stormy Forest in 2000.
“I really sing songs that move me,” he said in an interview with The Denver Post. “I’m not in show business; I’m in the communications business. That’s what it’s about for me.”
Havens also became an actor in the 1970s and was featured in the original stage presentation of The Who’s “Tommy.” He appeared in the 1974 film “Catch My Soul” and co-starred with Richard Pryor in “Greased Lightning” in 1977.
Havens was eldest of nine children. A public memorial for Havens will be planned for a later date.