*Famed folk singer Richie Havens, the opening act at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, died Monday of a sudden heart attack, his publicist said. He was 72.
Havens, who retired three years ago, toured for more than 30 years and recorded 30 albums.
He once told Billboard that his breakthrough at Woodstock came after another artist’s equipment got stuck in traffic. He was supposed to be the fifth act.
“It was 5 o’clock and nothing was happening yet,” Havens said. “I had the least instruments (to set up on stage) and the least people (in his band).” So Havens went on and performed for 40 minutes, as planned. Organizers asked him to do four more songs.
“I went back and did that, then it was, ‘Four more songs…’ and that kept happening ’til two hours and 45 minutes later, I had sung every song I know,” he said.
Havens, a Brooklyn, New York, native, told CNN in 1999 that music enabled him to leave his rough neighborhood to head to Greenwich Village and the music scene there.
“I believe I inherited my sense of music from my father. My father was an ear piano player; he could just hear something and play it,” he recalls. “I came up in Brooklyn singing doo-wop music from the time I was 13 to the time I was 20. That music served a purpose of keeping a lot of people out of trouble, and also it was a passport from one neighborhood to another.”
His inspiration for songs about social change and protest came when he heard artists like Fred Neil, Dino Valenti and Tom Paxton. That’s when he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“It was the songs that actually changed my life,” he says. “The songs that I heard were so much different than the doo-wop kind of thing. They were just so powerful. Finally I decided, ‘I’ve got to do this.'”
Before Woodstock, his nights were filled with playing as often as possible to make a few dollars.
“We played three coffeehouses a night, 14 sets a night, 20-minute sets, pass the basket, stay alive,” he told CNN. “I was there seven and a half years, every day. It was the most incredibly magic, magic time.”
After Havens gained attention at Woodstock, he recorded a soulful-voiced cover of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which rose on the pop charts in 1970.
“While his family greatly appreciates that Richie’s many fans are also mourning this loss, they do ask for privacy during this difficult time,” a statement from his publicist, Carrie Lombardi, said. “A public memorial will be planned for a later date.”
Havens is survived by three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.