Richie Havens was the real deal, a singer with a great voice, a distinctive guitar player with a truly destructive power – rare would be the gig that passed without at least one busted string, a truly great songwriter and to cap all that the ability to take other people’s songs and turn in versions that were either radically different in form to the original or, if remaining closer to the song as first composed just made better with the incredible gravitas that he brought to his performance. Richie Havens was the kind of singer who could make ‘Band on the Run‘ sound like something that really mattered. The Essentials is a way of capturing a Top 10, whether it be a set of songs or a set of albums – and for an artist with around 20 or so studio albums and a small handful of official live releases it might seem that the song route would be the one to go for. But for all those reasons just enumerated it is the album route that I’ve chosen. Why? Well, some of his greatest performances are the covers he chose, but to concentrate solely on this side of Havens would be a disservice, it’s the rounded complete works across the albums that are really the measure of his stature.
Richie Havens, like so many others of his musical generation, gravitated to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s leaving his childhood home in Brooklyn to do so. A man of talents he originally sold caricature portraits, was interested in Beat Poetry but eventually picked up a guitar and took to the coffee bar circuit. There’s the story he told of how he met the greatest name in the Village – having badgered a musician he’d followed around for weeks to teach him the most amazing song he’d ever heard, he’d go on to be praised for his own rendition by a scruffy young kid he’d never met. Having told Dylan who it was that had written ‘Hard Rain‘, Richie Havens was somewhat surprised to find out that the scruffy kid was actually the songs real author. Dylan clearly took no offence – Havens would go on to appear in both ‘Hearts on Fire‘ and, more memorably, in ‘I’m Not There‘ as a sort of mentor to a young Dylan. Richie Havens was also taken on by Albert Grossman.
Despite recording two album’s worth of material for Douglas Records, Richie Havens’ first release was on Verve Folkways in 1966 with ‘Mixed Bag‘ which was a fairly typical mix of covers with just a couple of Havens originals. It’s a stunning debut, and does appear below, but it did little business – neither did its follow up or the two belatedly released Douglas albums. The big break through was Woodstock – with the stage still being constructed Havens took the opening slot and played for “three hours.” There’s some exaggeration in that number for sure, but the suggestion is somewhat valid – he played a long set, much longer than expected and when he’d sung everything he could think of he extemporised a new song, riffing on ‘Motherless Children‘ to create the iconic ‘Freedom.’ There followed a series of remarkable albums, often experimental, expanding on Richie Havens’ favourite topics of, yes of course, peace, love and understanding, but more importantly of equality and compassion and a regard to the environmental damage man was doing to his world.
Like many artists of his era he had a difficult late Seventies and Eighties – the albums of that era tend to contain a few standout recordings and some ok songs – although generally even an ok rendition by Richie Havens was worth a little of one’s time. In the sixties and early seventies everyone wanted to record Dylan’s compositions, or the works of The Beatles but tastes had changed somewhat – and the cover song was less well regarded and felt a little bit like a Middle of the Road choice. This apparent drop in standing had a turnaround in the late-nineties, and his final three albums released in the first decade of the 21st Century were amongst his finest. He’d hooked up with Walter Parks as his lead guitarist, with whom he’d regularly tour, with cellist Stephanie Winters completing a tight trio. Winters played extensively on Havens’ final album ‘Nobody left to Crown‘. Live he was very possibly the finest performer I’ve ever had the privilege to see. His voice still majestic, his playing dramatic, his energy legendary
Number 10: ‘Mixed Bag II’ (1974)
The original ‘Mixed Bag‘ template was reused for this latter-day follow up again featuring songs by other songwriters, often in quite dramatically reworked form, as for example the seriously heavy take on ‘Band on the Run‘, as well as a surprisingly funky ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’ And this edgy and unsettling version of Neil’s ‘The Loner‘.
Number 9: ‘Wishing Well’ (2002)
A real return to form for Richie Havens, with a new richer acoustic led sound with a variety of percussive effect and cello (here played by Michelle Kinney) as well as a return of sitar on some songs. But most importantly this is Richie Havens written for six of ten songs, and these are amongst the strongest contributions. Also noteworthy for the live favourite ‘Love Is Alive‘ which this writer was lucky enough to call for as the last song of an encore to Havens’ vocalised approval. It was probably on the set list anyway, but what the heck.
The not quite a title track ‘The Well‘ had been reworked from a version on the album ‘Time‘ to emphasize the contemplative and spiritual sides of the song.
Number 8: ‘Alarm Clock’ (1971)
‘Alarm Clock’ was Havens’ highest charting album – hitting 29 on the US Top 200 chart, which was probably driven to some extent by a rather sparkling take on ‘Here Comes the Sun‘, a song which perfectly fit with Richie Havens’ world view of optimism and positivity. The album was, otherwise, a Havens’ written (or co-written) collection of songs and the title track was a particularly heavy multi-vocal tracked groove calling for a literal wake-up to reality with a vocal strained with emotion.
Number 7: ‘Time’ (1999)
An interesting release featuring as it does a mixture of studio and live recordings – not for the first time in Havens’ career – and also first appearances of songs such as ‘The Well‘ and ‘Nobody Left to Crown‘ which would reappear reworked on later albums. A standout song is ‘Zodiac‘ which deconstructs all humanity into twelve archetypes.
Number 6: ‘Nobody Left to Crown’ (2008)
His last full studio recording was a great blend of his new songs (and the general rule of thumb that the more Havens on it means a better album holds true here) and some songs that threw back to his earlier years – so there’s ‘The Great Mandala‘ taking us to Greenwich Village and ‘Won’t Be Fooled Again‘ recalling that Richie Havens was in the first stage production of ‘Tommy.‘ And (as a co-write) there’s the last of his great mythological songs, tying into the myths and legends of earlier times and the archetypes they represent. It’s an album tinged by sadness because it’s clear that there could have been a lot more music to come.
Number 5: ‘Stonehenge’ (1970)
Here’s Richie Havens playing more to his folk side – with gentle covers of songs like ‘I Started a Joke‘ alongside an ‘It’s All Over Baby Blue‘ which tries to bring in as many instruments as it can for a chamber-folk feel. And then he goes and caps it all with the slash-and-cut bewildering dazzle of ‘Shouldn’t All The World Be Dancing‘ which sounds like the template for ‘What’s Going On?‘ It’s a song that acknowledges that the world is in a mess, and suggests that there is an alternative: “No matter what you think it is man, the only two things that we have and do while we’re on this earth are giving life or taking it. Why not share it? Why not share it man? Why not share life with one another.”
Number 4: ‘Something Else Again’ (1968)
An album that couldn’t be more different from its predecessor (‘Mixed Bag‘) ‘Something Else Again‘ brought in more of a rock influence, whilst it questioned authority at every turn. Even the folk is psychedelically influenced – no psych-folk as we might call it today, but more in tune with the disorientated rock that the album sat alongside.
Think for yourself is Havens’ message on ‘Something Else Again‘ – and it’s a message that, predominantly, he wrote himself on this album – although ‘Maggie’s Farm‘ and ‘The Klan‘ are by no means out of place.
Number 3: ‘Mixed Bag’ (1966)
An album that makes you pin your ears back and really listen – and an album that definitely marked out Richie Havens as the finest male interpreter of the great new songs of his generation. He takes complete ownership of songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby‘ making the listener ask “The Beatles who?” There’s that percussive acoustic guitar, jazz drums, and a sneakily funky piano organ. There’s the early sign of Havens’ disturbing questioning on his own ‘Adam‘, and the career defining ‘Handsome Johnny,‘ a song which Havens told this writer he’d stopped singing because “it’d need too many new verses now.” And the very first song of the album ‘High Flyin’ Bird‘ was a wonder of Havens’ vocals, that jazz drumming and jazzy lead guitar and fluid beyond belief bass. Could this really be that same old folk standard? There’s something happening here…
Number 2: ‘Richard P. Havens, 1983‘ (1968)
How is this not the number one choice, will doubtless be the response of many – and it is true that this double album release has a great claim to be Richie Havens’ masterpiece. A blend of covers and self-penned music, unsurprisingly, and featuring the works of Dylan and The Beatles in particular it is also a blend of studio recordings and a couple of sides of live recordings including the trademark ‘Run, Shaker Life.’ There’s plenty of Havens’ more experimental side as well, with acoustic tracks backed up with echoey drums, and multi-tracked back-up vocals question and cut across the main vocal. It’s an album of questing and questioning that belies the relaxed cover photograph. It’s pretty essential, obviously.
Number 1: ‘Grace of the Sun’ (2004)
Not exactly coming from nowhere, following on as it does from ‘Wishing Well‘ – but expanding on the developments of that album and fully realising a blend of traditional sounds. There’s nylon stringed guitar, cello, sitar, tabla, conga and bongos and it all blends perfectly. And, here are another six of the best songs Richie Havens ever wrote. And the covers don’t jar in any way – who else has a better claim to cover ‘Woodstock‘? The almost title song – ‘By the Grace of the Sun‘ captures the magic of this magical album.