Advertisement

Freedom and a Good ‘Resume’ : Pop music: Richie Havens, who plays in Irvine on Sunday, hasn’t been as visible as he was at Woodstock, but his voice remains familiar.

Share
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The enduring image of Richie Havens performing “Freedom” at Woodstock is a potent vision of music’s capacity for spirituality. Hunched over and drenched in sweat as he grasped his guitar, Havens danced in rapturous, reflexive motion, completely absorbed by sound and emotion. The performance, captured forever on film, was one of the festival’s defining, most unforgettable moments.

That fact that Havens, who plays the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday, spontaneously composed “Freedom” onstage at Woodstock at the end of an uninterrupted, three-hour set (adapting it from the traditional spiritual “Motherless Child”) elucidates the artist’s appeal. Unschooled and untrained as a musician, Havens makes up for technical limitations by unrestrainedly giving of himself in concert.

His voice radiates an almost religious sincerity; his percussive, open-tuned guitar work serves as a perfect complement to the Moses-like vibe he projects.

Advertisement

“I never get away from any concert without having to play ‘Freedom,’ ” Havens said in a phone interview from his publicist’s office in New York. “Maybe three times in the last 24 years.

“It’s the one song I always have to play, and Woodstock is the one concert I have to talk about every day in my life. I don’t mind, though, because it was history, and it should remain history for young kids. Every generation since Woodstock is the generation of the ‘60s, with more communication and more knowledge of the past than we had. I find that the spirit has moved into all so-called ‘normal’ segments of our society and that the ethics we had haven’t disappeared.”

*

While it remains his signature tune, “Freedom” is far from the only uplifting song in Havens’ arsenal.

His version of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was the highest-charting single of Havens’ career, and he’s well-known for intriguing, rearranged covers of other Beatles songs, plus reworked versions of material by Bob Dylan, Dino Valenti and other, more traditional sources.

Among Haven’s originals, “Handsome Johnny” is perhaps the most hypnotic and moving song he’s recorded. Havens co-wrote it with actor Louis Gossett Jr. in the early ‘60s. The two have maintained a close friendship.

“Lou was an active musician in those days,” Havens said. “He played work songs and chain-gang songs onstage as his forte. Actually, I’m getting ready to do a show with Lou in December at Manhattan Center in New York City, where he’s going to do all that again. He’s getting back into music.”

Havens’ humanistic pith was nurtured early. Although he eschews traditional religion today, Havens, 52, grew up with a churchgoing family in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York and sang with the McCrea Gospel Singers.

“I was fortunate to grow up in the Bed-Stuy of the ‘40s,” he said. “I grew up with people from all around the world. Irish, Italian, Jewish and everything else you could think of lived together and played together.

“It wasn’t until the mid-'50s that my neighborhood became a ghetto--all black and Spanish,” he said. “That’s when I realized that this country wasn’t at all like we’d been told it was. That’s when most of the so-called ‘radicals’ of the ‘60s began to realize this as well, although what we proposed was just a normal progression of learning and understanding.”

After high school, Havens gravitated to the beatnik scene burgeoning in Greenwich Village, where he recited poetry, drew portraits and eventually was inspired to become a musician.

“When I want to Greenwich Village, I heard so many songs that really moved me that I had to learn to sing them,” he said. “I was listening to some of the greatest folk pickers around, and saw many of them for their first performances onstage: Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond Jr., Dylan was around, Dino Valenti, Freddie Neil, Phil Ochs, I saw them all. I also saw Richard Pryor’s first day onstage, and Bill Cosby’s.”

With his unique, flailing guitar style, impassioned vocals and solemn stage demeanor, Havens began to develop a reputation in folk circles, although it wasn’t until 1966 that his debut album was released on Verve Records.

Havens cemented his notoriety with the fiery Woodstock performance. A popular performer throughout the remainder of the ‘70s, his record sales never equaled the renown he enjoyed as a live act.

In fact, Havens has been plagued with record-label problems throughout his career, jumping from one company to another, only to be dropped following release of an album or two.

“They’ll sign you up, but they never tell you they’re fighting distributors at the time,” said Havens with a sigh. “I’ve survived six or seven labels. A couple of times, the whole company was fired as soon as I got signed. I was with MGM when three whole floors of people got fired--all that was left was me and the board.”

Aside from his concert appearances, Havens’ visibility declined dramatically in the ‘80s, although his voice was familiar to many through his work in commercials, including Amtrak, Budweiser and the Cotton Assn. of America.

The ‘90s have been more Havens-friendly, 1992 being a landmark year. His performance of “Just Like a Woman” was one of the highlights of the heavily hyped Bob Dylan 30th-anniversary concert, which was a hit on pay-per-view television. He also played at the Earth Ball, one of the high-profile events of President Clinton’s inauguration.

Last April, Rhino Records released “Resume,” a best-of Havens collection that, according to a label representative, has sold beyond expectations.

Havens’ association with Rhino will continue. He recently signed to record a new album for the Santa Monica-based label, which specializes in reissues. For one with so many horror stories about past label associations, Havens was surprisingly optimistic.

“I feel a lot better about this one,” he said. “Rhino happens to be the best possible label I could be on at the moment. They’re young guys doing what they want to do, putting out records that they’d want to buy.

“That’s what’s special about them,” he said. “They love what they do. If they do as good a job on this as they did on ‘Resume,’ maybe I can finally be where I should have been 20 years ago.”

* Richie Havens performs Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, UC Irvine. $24 and $28. (714) 854-4646.


Advertisement