Havens, who was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006, started out as a doo-wop singer in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, even joining the McCrea Gospel Singers as a teenager. But he was charmed by the Greenwich Village folk movement of the late '50s and early '60s and quickly learned how to play the guitar so that he could perform the songs he heard there for his friends.
It was a move that would launch his lengthy, powerful career, blending his own songs with radical interpretations of others' songs, and developing a unique style of guitar playing. Havens' biggest hit was his passionate, joyful reworking of The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" in 1971. He is probably best known for "Freedom," a song he improvised onstage at Woodstock by combining his feelings at the moment with the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," which his grandmother used to sing to him.
"When Richie started singing, rhythmically attacking his acoustic guitar like it was a talking drum, I knew for the first time that we were going to be okay," Michael Lang, co-creator of Woodstock, wrote in his 2009 book "The Road to Woodstock." "The show was off and running."
Havens went on to tour for more than 40 years and released nearly 30 albums, including "Alarm Clock," which cracked the Top 30 in 1971. He performed at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993 and acted in movies with Richard Pryor. However, Havens always honored his special time in Woodstock, saying the experience put his life in order.
"I really sing songs that move me," he told The Denver Post. "I'm not in show business. I'm in the communications business. That's what it's about for me."
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Havens, who retired from touring in 2010 following kidney surgery, inspired several generations. Singer-songwriter Joe Henry called Havens "a heroic and generous spirit" on Twitter. "He changed me," Henry wrote. "He changed you too, know it or not." Frank Iero, former My Chemical Romance guitarist, called Havens "one of my favorite artists and biggest musical inspirations" on Twitter. "Rest in peace Richie Havens," Iero wrote. "You made the world a cooler place."
"Beyond his music, those who have met Havens will remember his gentle and compassionate nature, his light humor and his powerful presence," his publicist said in a statement, adding that his family will plan a public memorial for a later date, but is currently seeking privacy.
Havens is survived by four daughters and several grandchildren.
Richie Havens had one Billboard Hot 100 single, a cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," which reached No. 16 in May 1971
Havens also had 13 albums that charted on Billboard 200, including one in the top 40: 1971's "Alarm Clock," which peaked at number 29
His final chart entry was the 1987 album "Simple Things," which reached No. 173