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Richie Havens Found His "Freedom"

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: Looking back at a true musical master.

When Ian Hunter, the onetime mainstay of the band Mott the Hoople, famously sang "All of the good ones are taken," he was clearly referring to the diminishing supply of prospective mates that qualify as marrying material. Yet these days, that same phrase could refer to the fact that so many musical icons have been taken from us recently to join that heavenly choir.

The latest of these is Richie Havens, who passed away yesterday at age 72, the victim of a sudden heart attack. Although he retired from performing three years ago, the image of him furiously strumming his guitar and rallying the hordes at Woodstock remains etched forever not only in the minds of those who were there but also in the hearts and souls of the millions who saw the film that followed. Few knew it at the time, but Havens' relentless incantation, which came to be known as "Freedom," was largely improvised after he played all the material he knew following a three-hour set that kept the crowd entertained while buying time for other artists. Based on the traditional folk tune "Motherless Child," his impassioned performance became one of the most memorable moments of that great documentary and, in turn, Haven's signature song.

In truth, Havens was already a seasoned folk singer well before Woodstock, having ventured in the early 1960s to the fabled environs of Greenwich Village, where he honed his talents in its various venues prior to recording five landmark albums. He quickly established a reputation as a unique interpreter of other people's material, particularly songs by Dylan and the Beatles, which he remarkably made his own. Likewise, he etched a visual image that would soon define him as well, a bearded storyteller in flowing robes who held his audiences rapt with words of wisdom and truth. Although he was only in his 20s by the time he played Woodstock and the many festivals that followed, he appeared much older than his years, like a wizened seer casting his singular spell over the masses.

As the decades went by, Havens continued to embody that role, retaining his robes and his counsel as his beard grew gray and the hair atop his head began to fall away. The college crowd adored him, and as they matured, they continued to appreciate this fatherly figure who led them on their way.

I recall meeting the man backstage at Miami's Jai Alai Fronton after being granted an interview for the University of Miami Hurricane newspaper. Somewhere, there's a black and white photo of me sitting beside the master, looking absolutely giddy at the opportunity to speak with this revered Woodstock warrior. What the photo doesn't show is my momentary apprehension when I noticed he hadn't put his dentures back in his mouth after his performance. It was a little-known fact that Richie took out his teeth when he would sing. It must have been effective, because he was one of the most soulful singers you'd ever want to hear. And I must say, at least based on our brief meeting, he was one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet as well.

Havens' career continued to flourish over the next few decades, thanks to a continuous stream of albums as well as minor roles in selected motion pictures (including the Bob Dylan fictional biopic I'm Not There) and his own environmental initiatives. When he finally retired, he was still at the peak of his prowess, strumming furiously, strutting about the stage, and spitting out those lyrics with the fury and ferocity of the younger man he once was.

"Freedom, freedom..." Freed of these earthly bonds, Richie's achieved his own freedom at last.

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Lee Zimmerman

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