Richie Havens – Freedom (Motherless Child)


Richard Pierce Havens (January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013) was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist. His music encompassed elements of folksoul (both of which he frequently covered), and rhythm and blues. He had a rhythmic guitar style (often in open tunings). He was the opening act at Woodstock, sang many jingles for television commercials, and was also the voice of the GeoSafari toys.

Early life

Born in Bedford–StuyvesantBrooklynNew York CityNew York, Havens was the oldest of nine children. He was of Native American (Blackfoot) descent on his father’s side and of the British West Indies on his mother’s. His grandfather was Blackfoot of the Montana/South Dakota area.

Havens’s grandfather and great-uncle joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, moved to New York City thereafter, and settled on the Shinnecock Reservation on Long Island. Havens’s grandfather married, then moved to Brooklyn.

As a youth, Havens began organizing his neighborhood friends into a street corner doo-wop group. At age 16, he was performing with the McCrea Gospel Singers.


Early career

At age 20, Havens left his hometown of Brooklyn, seeking artistic stimulation in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. “I saw the Village as a place to escape to, in order to express yourself,” he recalled. “I had first gone there during the beatnik days of the 1950s to perform poetry, then I drew portraits for two years and stayed up all night listening to folk music in the clubs. It took a while before I thought of picking up a guitar.”

Publicity photo released in 1974 by his management at the William Morris Agency

Havens’s solo performances quickly spread beyond the Village folk music circles. After cutting two records for Douglas Records, he signed on with Bob Dylan‘s manager, Albert Grossman, and landed a record deal with the Verve Folkways (later Verve Forecast) label. Verve released Mixed Bag in late 1966, which featured tracks such as “Handsome Johnny” (co-written by Havens and actor Louis Gossett Jr.), “Follow,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman“. Havens released his first single, “No Opportunity Necessary”, in 1967.

Something Else Again (1968) became his first album to hit the Billboard charts, and it pulled Mixed Bag back onto the charts. By 1969, he had released five albums. Two of those albums were unauthorized and were released by Douglas Records (or Douglas International): Electric Havens (released June 1, 1968) and Richie Havens Record (1969).

Woodstock and rise in fame

Havens, playing at Woodstock Music Festival 1969

Havens’s live performances earned widespread notice. His opening 1969 appearance at Woodstock in a trio with Paul “Deano” Williams on guitar and singing backing vocals and Daniel Ben Zebulon on percussion catapulted him into stardom and was a major turning point in his career. Despite Havens’s recollection that he performed for nearly three hours, the actual recording and setlist reflect that he played about fifty minutes.

Havens continued playing because the musicians after him were delayed by traffic, including the originally scheduled opening act, Sweetwater. Havens concluded his set by riffing off the old spiritual “Motherless Child“. In an interview with Cliff Smith, for Music-Room, Havens explained:

I’d already played every song I knew and I was stalling, asking for more guitar and mic, trying to think of something else to play – and then it just came to me … The establishment was foolish enough to give us all this freedom and we used it in every way we could.

The subsequent Woodstock movie release helped Havens reach a worldwide audience. He also appeared two weeks later at the Isle of Wight Festival, in late August 1969.: 202, 215 

Havens performing in Hamburg, Germany, May 1972

Havens also began acting during the 1970s. He was featured in the original 1972 stage presentation of The Who’s Tommy,: 244  as Othello in the 1974 film Catch My Soul, in Greased Lightning alongside Richard Pryor, and in Bob Dylan’s Hearts of Fire.

In July 1978, he was a featured performer at the Benefit Concert for The Longest Walk, an American Indian spiritual walk from Alcatraz to Washington, D.C. affirming treaty rights, as a result of legislation that had been introduced to abrogate Indian treaties.

Richie Havens
Havens in 1999

Havens in 1999
Background information
Birth name Richard Pierce Havens
Born January 21, 1941
New York City, U.S.
Died April 22, 2013 (aged 72)
Jersey CityNew Jersey, U.S.
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter
Instrument(s) Vocals, guitar, sitar
Years active 1965–2012
Labels Douglas RecordsVerve ForecastMGMA&MSolar/Epic/SMERykodiscRhino