Richie Havens 1941-2013
The death of Richie Havens has just been announced, of a sudden heart attack at his home, aged 72. A lot of people will think fondly of “Freedom”, “High Flying Bird” and his Beatles and Dylan covers. The tracks I’ll remember him by are both from the double album titled Richard P Havens 1983, released on Verve Folkways in 1969: they are “Parable of Ramon” and “What More Can I Say, John?” — a pair of protest songs all the more effective for their sombre understatement. The former is about a dirt farmer, the latter about Vietnam, and they both deserve to be thought of as classics. They also feature Paul Williams, Havens’s superlative lead guitarist, whose filigree solos and accompaniments provided a perfect foil for the leader’s rough-hewn voice and guitar strumming. I haven’t a clue what happened to him, but whenever I went to see Richie play in those days I looked forward to Williams’s contribution as much as anything.
I interviewed Havens once, for the Melody Maker, and it gave me a good story to tell. It was at a hotel on Park Lane, in 1970 or 71. I went up to his room at the appointed time, knocked on the door, and was shown in. He greeted me with great warmth, and looked me straight in the eye. “Aquarius,” he declared. Er, sorry, I said, but no. Still that piercing look. “Sagittarius!” No, wrong again. “Capricorn!” Look, sorry about this, but… “Taurus!” You can guess the rest: he ran through the whole card before a process of elimination gave him the right answer. He didn’t appear at all embarrassed, and it certainly amused me. Then we got to talk. He seemed like one of the good guys.