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R.I.P. Richie Havens: A Most Singular Artist
The Minstrel From Bedford-Stuyvesant
April 26, 2013
|(January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013)|
These are trying times we live in. It's often difficult to find a simple ray of hope, or a strong and steady voice that offers us promise as we move through the glut of greed, corruption and indifference that runs through our world today. For some like myself, it's a world we would never dare to claim as our own, yet by virtue of our mere presence within it, we play a part nevertheless. And try as we may to rise above the fray in order to do right not only by ourselves, but also by our fellow man, we are ultimately brought down by forces that are greater than ourselves, finding ourselves often demoralized and sometimes even crushed. I increasingly struggle to make sense of the world around me, wrestling with predicaments over which I have little, or no control. Some days I simply feel defeated at every turn. Others in my position (and there are many) often turn to religion for their answers, while others might seek solace in any myriad forms of escape. As for me, I turn to music, music that speaks to my soul, helping me to find the strength, energy and willpower to overcome my perceived (and temporary) powerlessness, and the music of Richie Havens is one of those voices who provides me with that hope.
Much like the transcendent jazz of John Coltrane, the earthy, gospel infused soul of Aretha Franklin, and the metaphysical leanings of Carlos Santana, Richie Havens too, can be considered a spiritual warrior. Armed with only his voice and a guitar, Havens is capable of delivering the message of hope and promise that we all so desperately need in our lives to weather adversity and soldier on. As Havens once stated, he is not in the entertainment business, but rather the 'communications' business, dispatching his missives with a smokey voice like crushed velvet that soothes the soul and inspires the heart in its simpatico.
Beyond his prowess in interpreting the works of others, Havens other strengths lay in the open tunings he utilizes for his guitar as well as his distinctive percussive strumming style. The unusual tunings are an effective strategy that have often served others nicely --- as in the case of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake --- tunings which give a certain inexplicable quality to his sound, while his rhythmic strumming on the other hand carries the content of each song with authority and sheer conviction. The combination of the three --- voice, tuning, and even-handed rhythm --- is an extremely powerful maneuver that brings the ever important message of the songs he sings to the forefront without the distractions of any superfluous, non-essential colorings. Whether deliberate or unintentional, it's a tactic that pulls the listener into each song. The soft haziness of his voice then blends effortlessly with the strings, while the persuasive strumming conveys the urgency of the message within it. In short, it can be very powerful stuff.
But perhaps what I've always found most remarkable about Havens is his ability to transform each and every song he approaches into one that sounds as though it could be his very own. For instance, listen to his take on Marvin Gaye's, 'What's Going On?.' I've heard many covers of this classic, but Havens nails it in a way that would have surely pleased its author. And who would've thought for even a minute that anyone other than Marvin might conceivably do justice to one of his own compositions? Likewise Bob Dylan's, 'I Pity The Poor Immigrant,' or George Harrison's, 'Here Comes The Sun.' These are only three examples of Havens strength at interpretation and there are many more to be found. Case in point, although it's not really a stretch, if you were to compare Richie's rendition of 'Wonder Child,' a song exclusively written by Sam Pottle and David Axlerod for Sesame Street and then compare it to Helen Reddy's original performance, there's simply no contest. I know, it's an unfair juxtaposition and a far too easy pot shot, but really... where Reddy's version is merely a pleasant aside, Havens reading literally brings a tear to your eye, it's that tender. But perhaps most startling is his version of Pete Townshend's, 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' Without the aid of Keith Moon's thundering drums, the thick bottom of Entwhistle's bass, Townshend's crashing chords, or even Roger Daltry's memorable scream, Havens replicates all the power of the original without losing one single ounce of the urgency. He utilizes cellos for the time worn synthesizer parts heard on the group's version, putting it all into an acoustic setting that percolates with energy and utter persuasion.
It was over forty years ago that Richie Havens made history delivering a memorable three hour set of music at a small cultural festival held on Max Yasgur's farm in Upstate New York back in 1969 called the Woodstock Music and Arts festival. You might have heard about it. But Havens is so much more than just another stage act. He's a modern day troubadour, a wandering minstrel who has graced countless clubs and concert halls across the world. And it's there in that arena where he becomes the 'communicator' and spiritual warrior, the soulful acoustic giant whose message is the need to practice social responsibility, to question authority, and most of all to let love rule your heart and mind. With only a guitar of six steel strings, he fights for freedom and understanding, and fights against the forces of tyranny and oppression. And you thought he was just that guy who opened at Woodstock.
Troubadour Richie Havens
Originally published April, 2010
Blessed with one the most distinguished and recognizable voices in contemporary music, Havens remains as honest, soulful and ageless as when he first emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. His is a voice that has always inspired and in some cases even electrified as it did at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in 1969, and at the Clinton Inauguration in 1993, as well as in 1999 when he came full circle appearing at the 30th Woodstock Anniversary celebration, 'A Day in the Garden.' Fortunate to have witnessed Havens many times throughout the years, I've observed him age with a unique kind of splendid of grace --- losing none of his power to enchant and enthrall --- becoming a rare and inspiring voice of eloquence, integrity and social responsibility. Obviously, I'm captivated by the music and spirit of Richie Havens, and I hope that by sharing some examples with you here, they'll serve to beguile you as well. Of course that's based on the assumption that you're not already among the many converted.
About The Music
Havens foremost strength lays in his ability at rendering the songs of others, particularly those of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. In fact, in 1987 he recorded an entire album of Lennon/McCartney and Dylan tunes for the Ryko label. Although he's more than capable of writing many fine songs for himself, it's ultimately his interpretive skills that carry the day. In addition to the aforementioned tunesmiths, he's also covered exceptional songwriters like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell and CSN&Y (both collectively and individually). Likewise, similar authors such as Robbie Robertson, Fred Neil and Donovan Leitch. More surprisingly however, he's tackled such disparate writers as Sting, Marvin Gaye, The Jefferson Airplane and even The Who to name just a few. What is most astonishing however is that each of his readings are haunting, extraordinary performances that transform the originals into such personal statements that he succeeds on nearly every level at making them seem to have come from his very own pen. It's simply an astounding feat.
In arranging the songs for Parts 1 & 2 of 'The Minstrel From Bedford-Stuyvesant,' I've tried my best to keep the material in the chronological order of their release, but I've have made a few adjustments for the sake of flow. Of the featured albums, Richie's 'Mixed Bag' is presented in its entirety, while 'Richard P. Havens, 1983' is also nearly complete, as I believe these two albums are among his very best work (although his recent output is also extremely strong). His take on Quicksilver's, 'What About Me?' comes from a video clip that was taken from a BBC television performance that featured Havens with a small ensemble. 'Wonder Child,' on the other hand comes from Sesame Street where it was originally was performed back in 1975. Conspicuously absent in these sets however are selections from his late 70s A&M releases as well as his recordings from the early 80s, as these are critically considered to be among his weakest. Due to the demise of MGM Records who distributed his own Stormy Forest label, Havens lost creative control over his recorded output during this period, subsequently releasing a string of label produced, trend heavy releases that today sound overproduced and sorely dated. While they do contain some memorable moments, unfortunately there are not nearly enough to warrant their inclusion. It was only with the release of '...Sings Beatles And Dylan' in 1987 that Havens was finally able to take repossession of his authority to determine the direction of his recorded output, and he then began to reclaim the mantle that always described him best --- an acoustic soul giant --- re-emerging even more inspiring and relevant than ever before.