Richie Havens, First Artist to Play Woodstock, Dead at 72

Richie Havens, the renowned New York folk singer who will forever go down in history as the man who opened the Woodstock festival, died of a heart attack Monday at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 72.

Back on August 15, 1969, Havens was originally slated as the fifth act on the opening day of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which took place on Max Yasgur's farm outside Woodstock, New York. But Havens was enlisted to be the emergency festival-opener when the first scheduled band on the day's bill, Sweetwater, got stuck in traffic. Havens, along with two other musicians who were already on the festival grounds, helicoptered their way to the Woodstock stage with two conga drums and two guitars, kicked off the show, and performed a legendary three-hour set while other artists were still en route. After Havens ran out of encores, he improvised a song based on the old spiritual "Motherless Child," which became "Freedom." And the rest was history.

Havens's career-making Woodstock performance was followed by one Billboard Hot 100 single, a cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," which peaked at number 16 in May 1971. He also had 13 albums that charted on the Billboard 200. The singer-songwriter's many other achievements included appearing in the original 1972 stage presentation of the Who's Tommy and the films Catch My Soul, Greased Lightning, and Hearts of Fire. Later in life, he recorded television commercial jingles, performed at the 1993 Environmental Inaugural Ball for President Bill Clinton, and collaborated with the techno duo Groove Armada on the single "Hands of Time." In 2009, he returned to the scene of Woodstock '69 to play a sold-out concert to mark the festival's 40th anniversary.

"While his family greatly appreciates that Richie's many fans are also mourning this loss, they do ask for privacy during this difficult time," said a statement from a Haven representative Monday.