I was playing a gig this weekend. I saw a guitar player open tuning their guitar. Oh, the sweets sounds of a guitar that is open tuned. It is a richer fuller sound. It rings and the tone is deep. There are so many things you can do with a guitar and open tuning and it certainly got me thinking…
Richie Havens was one of the greatest folk singer I have ever heard. Listening to him over and over as a kid I learned the technique as a young guitar player how to play open tuning. Havens offered me that gift through his music. He also offered me a new way to interpreted songs. He would take cover songs and put a spin on them like no artist I could have ever imagined, and he offered that great gift to me as well. Richie Havens died yesterday at the age of 72 of a heart attack.
When I think about musicians who made the 60s, who forever would be a part of the 60s, Havens had to be one of them. I was a kid, too young to go to Woodstock, but oh, how I have memories of listening to him sing at Woodstock. Who was this man and how could he possibly sound this wonderful? I remember getting albums of Richie’s and listening to them repeatedly. The way he interpreted songs was magnificent. Songs like, Here Comes the Sun, or Just Like A Woman, these were breath taking. Motherless Child and Freedom is what I will always remember him for.
I was gathering information last night about Havens and did not realize that he was the opening act for Woodstock, perhaps I was too young to remember and too young to remember that he played for three hours. I started seeing him as a kid more and more on TV. This Brooklyn native, whose father was a Native American, loved his sons’ voice and listened to him. Havens reported that his father had a knack for music. His family was very musical and so Havens began a Doo Wop group. At the age of 16, he started a gospel choir. I suspect he knew he had talent so he left NY and headed off to Greenwich Village.
Havens of course got into music and played wherever he could, mainly coffee shops as that was what folk musicians did in the 60s. He soon released some demos and eventually MGM picked him up. In 1967, he recorded his album Mixed Bag, which I thought was a perfect title for this album. On this album remains one of my favorite songs by him which is Dylan’s Just Like a Woman. That was when I noticed his open tuning strumming. I was unsure at first how he achieved to get such sound out of his guitar and making the guitar sound like it was saying grace. A friend of mine said he opened tuned. It was as if he used that guitar almost like a drum. He slammed it and strummed it, and I never recognized his chords. I learned through him how divine opening tuning could be.
He had a successful career and he released more than 25 albums, his last was in 2008. He kept busy by acting in the 70s, and in 2000, he started his own record label called Stormy Forest. Havens was an artist I listened to often. His music soothed the soul as far as I was concerned. It was deep and filled with emotions and feelings. I think that is one thing Havens did the best, he used his voice as utter expression and he used it well.
I will miss Richie Havens, but what I have is a collection of his music, a song in my heart, and the memories of trying to figure out how he got his guitar to sound so rich. Richie Havens was a folk genius who took the music to levels unimaginable for a folk singer. I can guarantee you that rock and roll heaven just got better!