It's been almost a month since singer Richie Havens died. He was one of the first musicians I interviewed — and one of the best. Havens and I talked the afternoon away.
At the end of the interview, he asked me to come to his show and meet him. In a lifetime of interviews, he said, our conversation stood out as among the best. Thinking back, that was probably because it meant so much to me.
I grew up in the 80s, well past his heyday. My first exposure to his enveloping voice was his jingle, "The look, the feel of cotton…the fabric of our lives." But I came late to the game. Let's go back in time to a place where Havens still exists in many hearts.
Woodstock, 1969, as Havens watched over the sea of people in front of him, he said he got a sense of which way the wind was about to blow. He started singing the word “Freedom” over and over again.
In this moment -- right on stage -- he realized that his generation had found its voice.
“I was looking out over the people as I was strumming and this thought came to me. This was the freedom that my entire generation had been looking for,” said Havens.
He had an ability to read the moment and he was a performer who liked to connect deeply with his audience. His performances were spiritual events. He never followed set lists. He planned the first songs of his shows and the last song was always “Freedom.” But everything in between was a chance for Havens to interact with his fans. He was always trying to read the crowd, trying to forge a bond with his fans.
I found his voice irresistible. Many knew Havens from his versions of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and Paul McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby." But have you heard him sing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time"? The song was in the air around the time that Havens sang in the commercial for cotton. "Time After Time" was a huge hit for Lauper. But it was Havens who brought it to my attention.
It didn't matter who wrote the songs once he decided to do them. He had a knack for showing me the soulfulness of songs I would have otherwise overlooked. What mattered, he said, was that he sang songs that meant a lot to him.
“Whatever song I sing, you can bet it is a song that has changed me personally,” said Havens.
He figured if a song touched him, it could do the same for others. Those songs had a powerful ally in Havens. With just the empathy in his voice and an acoustic guitar, he would win over audience members one by one. As they followed him deeper into the rhythms and looked for the messages that each song contained no one knew what they might find. The only thing they knew was how it would all end.
He always left them with "Freedom."