RICHIE HAVENS MAJESTICALLY ENDED a six-year hiatus from recording in 2000 by singing “The Time of the Turning” on Peter Gabriel’s OVO, and the turning of the millennium found Richie prolific and excited about new songs and new collaborations. By the spring of 2001 he was auditioning new band members and laying tracks for the first of what would be his final three recordings— Wishing Well, Grace of the Sun, and Nobody Left to Crown. My audition at Kaleidoscope Sound began with Richie chugging into “All Along the Watchtower” and stomping his trademark heel-toe beat with the same unbridled fervor that I would witness as his sideman, upon stages the world over for the next ten years.
In this, the home stretch of his career, it seemed that on both aesthetic and musical fronts Richie epitomized cool. Rather than revisiting his acoustic origins, he did the opposite on the ironically titled “Going Back to My Roots” with British electronic dance band Groove Armada—and in 2006 he unequivocally slayed thousands while singing with the band at England’s Glastonbury Festival. In 2008 Richie opened the Cannes Film Festival with myself on guitar and Stephanie Winters on cello.
There was much to learn from Richie by observing him. His dignifying regal adornments of multiple rings and necklaces illustrated his specialness, yet he would never demean his fellow man nor act superior to make this point. Richie seemed to have all the time in the world for the average guy, and he never looked around the room during a conversation to make sure he didn’t miss talking to a more important person. He disliked being introduced as an “icon” or a “legend,” yet these accolades resounded beyond control.
Richie uniquely manifested even the simplest of things. Fans, friends, and staff would jokingly wonder if in fact he was not of this earth—and even Richie believed that he was merely visiting the planet. As if the soothing character of his deep, grainy voice was not distinctive enough, he even found a way to strum the guitar uniquely with an immediately identifiable gallop. Richie tuned his Guild D-40 to open D major to simulate the doo-wop harmonies he well understood from his Brooklyn days. This tuning enabled him to play chords using his huge left thumb as a capo. His creative use of language in lieu of traditional music terminology forced musicians, producers, and engineers to patiently maintain open minds else translation was impossible.
After the last song of every show up until his retirement in 2010, after having given his absolute all, drenched in sweat, Richie joined both hands over his head and took a bow of gratitude to the audience. Richie left us with a wonderful discography and echoes of inspiration. Take a moment to compare clips of him at Woodstock in 1969 and at Madison Square Garden in 2009. These career bookends confirm that Richie Havens mastered the most important obligation of the stage— present, genuine connection.