Voice of regeneration

By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  December 16, 2008

When Havens made it to the Village and started hearing the pre-Dylan folk of Fred Neil, Dino Valenti, and Tom Paxton, he knew what he wanted to do. "The songs that those guys sang, they moved me so much that I wanted to sing them. But I wasn't the front guy in all of my doo-wop groups. I was the baritone, I was the choreographer, I was the stay-in-key guy, because I had a deep voice. But I would sit in the coffeehouses and clubs, night after night, and hear songs like 'Tear Down the Walls' and 'The Dolphin Song' and 'To Be a Man.' One night, Fred Neil comes up to me and says, 'Richie, you've been sitting here for six months singing my damn songs from the audience — take this guitar home and learn how to play them yourself!' So he hands me a guitar, which I took home. I sat down with this guitar, tuned it up to a major chord, and I just started playing it. I learned a bunch of these songs in three days, and I went back and I played all of the songs for Freddie, and he flipped out and said, 'If I'd known I'd be giving you my damned job!' "

Havens got his start as a performer in the Village at the legendary Cafe Wha?, where he joined a tight-knit community of like-minded artists and musicians, or "poets" as he likes to think of them. "The guy who ran Cafe Wha?, Manny Roth, he was the first guy to start paying folk singers to play, $25 a week, which was a lot of money back then! He had this little kid, his sister's kid, this boy around four or five years old, and there were a bunch of times where Manny would come down to the club and say, 'Hey Richie, would you watch the kid, I'll be back in half an hour,' and then he'd disappear for three hours! And this kid, he wound up, decades later, being in this really popular rock band, I can't remember what they were called. But that kid, his name was David Lee Roth. I halfway brought him up!"

Richie eventually gained notoriety in folk circles, and that led first to his signing to Verve records in 1967 and ultimately to his career-defining Woodstock gig. But more important, he found in the Greenwich scene a way to reach an audience desperate for a message of communion. "Back then, we weren't really competitive, because everyone involved was learning — whether we were singers, musicians, comedians even. The songs that we sung in the late '60s tended to become prophetic by the mid '70s, when you saw a lot of people speaking out and realizing that the songs were talking about right now."

Havens's latest album, Nobody Left To Crown (Verve Forecast), offers his usual mix of well-positioned covers and impassioned originals. The title track (which appeared on his '77 A&M album Mirage in a somewhat different form) is a biting tune that he once introduced live with the explanation that "a guy pissed me off one day and I wrote this song; his name was Richard Nixon." Like pretty much everything Havens does, the song is more hopeful and upbeat than you might expect from its political frankness — and he can still let loose the vocal and guitar-strumming maelstrom that the world was introduced to in '69. "I don't really record a record — I perform it. So I don't have to sing a tune 20 times because of some producer's ear. I know what I'm doing when I sing a song, so that's the way it happens."

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  Topics: Music Features , Richard Nixon, Woodstock, Museum of Fine Arts,  More more >
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