Richie Havens

Richie Havens grew up singing in Doowap and Gospel harmony groups. This was Brooklyn in the 50s, and these were local children, gathered by Richie to sing on street corners. He’d already had some small measure of fame, being recognised by ‘Star Time USA’, a corny old talent show where the likes of Connie Francis and Bobby Darin had also started out. I can’t find any footage of this, but I imagine it –  a poor, skinny kid, blinking shyly under the lights, singing out his keen, young heart.

Richie’s professional singing career began at the age of fourteen, with the McCrea Gospel Singers. Later on, during what’s come to be known as ‘The Great Folk Scare’ of the 1960s, he moved to Greenwich Village and picked up a guitar tuned to an open-D chord, which suited his large hands and desire to learn songs quickly. It’s a sound he made his own, fretting with the thumb, augmenting the tuning’s rougher, bluesy associations with cunningly-fingered major 7th and 6th chords and a unique, driving right hand strum.

He would have heard Dylan at this point, also Lennon and McCartney. But he would have already know older Jazz standards like ‘God Bless the Child’. The music was in him early, filtered in part from the playing of his musician Father. In time, he would come to make many such pieces his own. I’ve come to hate the word ‘cover’, which to my mind is redolent of the disposable, ill-rendered nonsense which occupies so much of the music world nowadays; a word which means no consideration, something run-through blithely, intended to gratify instantly and fleetingly. Richie Havens never ‘covered’ anything his whole career. Like Nina Simone, he inhabited song, lived in it, found out what each piece meant to him and, by extension, what it could mean to a wider audience. Listening to him singing ‘I Can’t Make It Anymore’, ‘Fire and Rain’ or ‘Tupelo Honey’, I get the sense of something not delivered until absolutely ready, known intimately, understood. His versions of Dylan songs are some of the few which stand toe to toe with the originals, up there with Jimi. Covers? Nothing so off-hand here. Have a listen, you’ll hear what I mean.

Tom Waits once said of Leadbelly, another black songster with an astonishing repertoire and inimitable delivery, that songs just liked to live in him the way birds prefer certain trees. I think the same can be said of Richie Havens. Like him, my own taste in music came by way of my parents and the records I heard around the house as a child. ‘Mixed Bag’, Richie’s best album, was a constant. I have the vinyl copy here in front of me as I type, its iconic, slightly austere cover photo held there in time. We still play that record, getting misty-eyed about songs like ‘Sandy’, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ and that rare Village footnote, ‘Follow’. Ah, ‘Follow’ indeed! One of the most haunting pieces I know. I’m putting it on now, just quietly…

A rare talent, to be sorely missed. “If all the sounds you hear ain’t what they seem/Then don’t mind me, ‘cause I ain’t nothing but a dream”.

Goodnight, Richie Havens: January 21st 1941 – April 22nd 2013

J