Richie Havens, the Brooklyn-born folk singer who opened the Woodstock Festival in 1969, died of a sudden heart attack in his Jersey City, N.J., home on Monday. Havens was 72.
Born in 1941, Havens got his start in music playing in doo-wop groups around Brooklyn in the 1950s. At age 20, Billboard reports, Havens left home to seek artistic freedom in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, which at the time was the center of New York’s burgeoning beatnik and folk music scenes.
From his base in the Village, Havens made a name for himself playing protest folk songs as well as crafting his own original takes on popular music of the day. He recorded his most popular album “Mixed Bag” in 1967, which featured original tunes like “Adam” alongside reworkings of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
On Aug. 15, 1969, Havens played the most famous gig of his career as his three-hour set opened the Woodstock music festival. At the end of his lengthy time on stage, Havens had run out of songs and improvised a new number based on the classic spiritual “Motherless Child.” The new composition, “Freedom,” propelled Havens to stardom after it was included in the 1970 documentary “Woodstock.”
After his peak at Woodstock in 1969, Havens continued to tour relentlessly around the United States and the world for decades. Perhaps most famously, Haven performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. Though he appeared to be in good health throughout much of his later life, in 2012, Havens announced an end to his 45 years of non-stop touring on his website, stating that that a recent surgery made public performances too difficult.
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Havens is survived by his four daughters, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Watch Havens' career-making performance of "Freedom" at Woodstock below.