Like most people born after Woodstock, I first became aware of Richie Havens from the Woodstock movie. He was different from most of the other performers because he was completely acoustic, his gravelly and aching voice providing the perfect accompaniment to the quick movements of his fingers on that guitar. I always thought his performance was more serious, more powerful than the others included in the original documentary.
The first time I saw Woodstock I was probably ten years old, and though I was quite an accomplished scholar of rock and roll by then I didn’t know some of the musicians. Never heard of Canned Heat, though I found their dirty blues fascinating. Country Joe McDonald who? But I totally loved “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.” Ten Years After were a mystery to me, but they were brilliant. I’m not sure I had ever heard of Santana at that point, but they blew me away. And I definitely didn’t know Richie Havens. But I was very impressed with his voice. “Handsome Johnny” was my favorite song of his.
So much soul, so much passion, so much realness in his voice. Nobody will ever sound like him. Nobody will ever be able to make you feel the words like he did. His version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” sounds like he wrote it. It’s a totally different song. Very few artists can achieve that. And very few artists can sing The Beatles except The Beatles.
There are almost no true musical artists these days. Richie was one of the last of The Greatest Generation of musical geniuses. That era will never be duplicated, nor will any future group of performers ever come close to bringing that much talent to the masses.
RIP, Richie Havens.