ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. If he had done nothing else, Richie Havens would have had a secure place in American music history as the performer who opened Woodstock, on Aug. 15, 1969.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING
RICHIE HAVENS: (Singing) Freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom...
CORNISH: Havens improvised that tune on the spot, and it became a highlight of the documentary film about the festival, which introduced him to audiences around the world. Richie Havens died this morning of a sudden heart attack at his home in Jersey City, N.J.
Havens got his professional start in a Brooklyn gospel choir, as a teenager. And not long after, he was performing in Greenwich Village coffee houses and folk clubs; the rare black performer on a predominantly white scene. Havens made an impression with his sandpaper-soft voice and percussive guitar playing. And he caught the ear of the man who helped create Peter, Paul and Mary and first signed Bob Dylan, folk music impresario Albert Grossman. Richie Havens released his breakout album in 1967.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDSOME JOHNNY")
HAVENS: (Singing) Hey, look yonder, tell me what you see, marching to the fields of Vietnam? It looks like Handsome Johnny with an M-15, marching to the Vietnam War; hey, marching to the Vietnam War...
CORNISH: Havens went on to act in films and on television, and he scored a U.S. top 20 hit with his version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," in 1971. But it was on stage, with his guitar, that Havens was in his element. He toured constantly, and told NPR in 2008 that he never planned his shows beyond the opening and closing songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HAVENS: Many times, people have come up to me after; and they'd say, Richie, do you know what you did? I'd say, what? And they'd go, I wrote these songs down for you to sing, and you sang them all in a row.
That's the kind of communication that happens, you know. It's like if you let the audience lead, then you are the audience.
CORNISH: Richie Havens connected with audiences from stages large and small, for more than 50 years. He died today at the age of 72.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN")
HAVENS: (Singing) Little darling, it's been a long, long, lonely winter. Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here. Here comes the sun... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.