In fact, the folk legend has been on a roll for more than 40 years now in a life filled with honors, wisdom, travel, friends, and always the joy of making some of the most singular music in American history.
Havens, 67, is performing in Northern Michigan twice this summer, starting with a show at the Traverse City Opera House this Friday, May 9 at 8 p.m., and again at the Dunegrass and Blues Festival in August. Between those gigs, youll find him flying back and forth between Colorado, Oregon, New York, Paris, Switzerland and Monaco, among other destinations.
Im always traveling, he says in a phone interview. I started out playing six days a week for the first seven years of my career, and for the past 29 years its been every weekend all year round.
Havens is a living treasure of Americana. Like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary, he was one of the seminal influences and players in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s and early 60s, and has maintained an enduring popularity ever since.
Born the eldest of nine children into a musical family in Brooklyn (his father played piano by ear), Havens performed in street-corner doo-wop bands in the 50s, singing a cappella harmonies in his rich baritone.
But the times, they were a-changin. An artist as well as a singer, he began drawing portraits at the age of 20 on the streets and squares of Greenwich Village during its beatnik days, gravitating to the poetry and folk music of its clubs. By the early 60s, he was a regular in the audience at the clubs, singing along with the performers.
One night I was sitting in the audience singing, and Fred Neil (Dolphins, Tear Down the Walls) called out from the stage: Richie, why dont you learn to play the guitar and get up here? Youre singing all of our songs already.
Although it had never occurred to Havens to play the guitar, thats just what he did, learning the instrument on the spot and chancing upon his unusual style by a stroke of luck. Rather than learning how to play with a standard tuning in the traditional manner, Havens tuned his guitar to an open chord, which allowed him to strum away, using his thumb to fret the instrument.
Havens has played the guitar as an open chord instrument ever since, tuning his acoustic D40 Guild guitar to DADF#AD. He also reaches incredible speeds with his strumming technique for sustained periods of time -- a feat which requires both strength and stamina.
The weird part of it is I dont even think about playing, he says. I dont try to play slow or fast -- I just play however the mood strikes me. Im just accompanying my voice, and my playing can be slower one day and faster the next.
Havens also never knows exactly what songs hell perform at a show.
I never work on a set list -- I only know the first and last song Ill perform, he says, adding that he feels out the audience and intuits what to play. Ive had more than 100 people come up to me after shows and say they were amazed that I performed three songs in a row that they wanted to hear, and how did I know what they were thinking? Somehow, I just know.
Havens soon made a name for himself in Greenwich Village, with mentoring by singer Nina Simone and songwriters Fred Neil and Dino Valenti. After being signed by Bob Dylans legendary manager, Albert Grossman, he released his first album, Mixed Bag on Verve in 1967.
But it was his power of intuition and improvisation that led to one of the most memorable performances of the 20th century when he opened the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. He played for 400,000 people for three hours, getting one encore after another for his bravura performance. Finally, having run out of songs, he performed the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and started riffing with the vocal tag line of Freedom to symbolize the power of the 60s youth movement. The electrifying, on-the-spot synthesis of emotion and music is considered by many critics to be the best performance in the film Woodstock, securing Richie Havens career as a must-see act for all time.
But theres a paradox about Havens. Although hes clearly a creative soul and enjoys painting, drawing and sculpting in his studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, hes written relatively few of his own songs.
Hes best known as an interpreter of other musicians work, most notably Bob Dylan on tunes such as Just Like a Woman (which was the standout performance at big Bobs 60th birthday tribute bash). Havens is also noted for his remake of the Beatles tune, Here Comes the Sun.
Hes influenced other musicians as well: back in his Greenwich Village days, he taught a little-known musician named Jimmy James how to play Dylans All Along the Watchtower. Jimmy ditched his band, The Flames, and reinvented himself as Jimi Hendrix, with the song becoming one of his biggest hits.
Havens has written more of his own songs in recent years however. I wrote most of the songs on my last two albums, he says, and its funny, but all of the songs I wrote were in keys Ive never sang in before.
His new album, Nobody Left to Crown, comes out this year, with the title song being one of optimism in the face of adversity. One thing Ive seldom done is to name an album by the title of a song, he says. But this song seems to fit: it says we should be crowning ourselves for all the hassles weve had to go through just to be normal in these times. We should be patting ourselves on our backs.
Given that he travels constantly and was a child of one of the richest musical scenes in American history, does he ever run across anyplace similar to Greenwich Village in its hey-day?
Yes, Ive been surprised to see that kind of scene happening in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he responds. It used to be just barren down there, but now there are all kinds of music clubs and cafes and its the same atmosphere as Greenwich Village in 1958. Its like New Orleans used to be, and 90 percent of the musicians are real good.
What kind of advice would he give to young singer-songwriters?
Make sure that you can be heard by the public in any place that allows you to play, he says. And dont chase anything, because eventually, that will start chasing you. Remember that you are the show, the instrument, the words and ideas.
For bands trying to make it, I know that a lot of them save their best song for last, so I always tell them to play their last song first, he adds. Because if you can knock em out in the audience from the very beginning, you set the mood for the whole night.
Count on Richie Havens to knock em out from beginning to end at his upcoming shows in Northern Michigan.
Richie Havens performs Friday, May 9 at 8 p.m. at the TC Opera House, with tickets $35-$50.