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Folk Singer, Woodstock Star Richie Havens Dead at 72

His rousing opening set kicked off the famous music festival in 1969

Folk singer Richie Havens, whose rousing opening set kicked off the Woodstock festival and film, died Monday at his home in Jersey City, N.J., from a heart attack.

He was 72.

Known for his intense and rhythmic guitar style and soulful covers of pop and folk songs, Havens toured and recorded music for more than 40 years before retiring from the road three years ago for health reasons.

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“His fiery, poignant, soulful singing style has remained unique and ageless since his historic appearance at Woodstock in 1969," his longtime management company the Roots Agency said in a statement. "For four decades, Havens used his music to convey passionate messages of brotherhood and personal freedom.”

After growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. as the eldest of nine children, Havens got his musical start performing in Greenwich Village. His fame spread and he signed with Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, and landed a record deal with the Verve Forecast label.

Verve released the album Mixed Bag in 1967, which featured tracks "Handsome Johnny" (co-written by Havens and future Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr.) and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman.". His 1968 album Something Else Again became his first to hit the Billboard chart.

But it was after his Woodstock performance (photo, left) that his career took off. He was the festival's first act and performed for nearly three hours — in part because he was told to perform a lengthy set because many artists were delayed in reaching the festival location. He was called back for several encores and, having run out of material, he improvised a song based on the old spiritual "Motherless Child" that became "Freedom."

The movie release of 'Woodstock" helped Havens became a mainstream star and reach a worldwide audience. He appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." The studio audience at the Carson show reacted so enthusiastically to his performance — right through the commercial break — that the host invited him back the following night.

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Following the success of his Woodstock performance, Havens started his own record label, Stormy Forest. His 1970 album Stonehenge was the first of five he'd release via that imprint. 

Havens also tried his hand at acting with some success in the 1970s. He was featured in the original 1972 stage presentation of "The Who's Tommy," and appeared as Othello in the 1974 film "Catch My Soul" and the Richard Pryor movie "Greased Lightning."

During the 1980s and 1990s, Havens continued a world touring schedule and albums, and Rhino Records released two retrospectives.

In 1982, Havens composed and performed a promotional slogan for NBC's 1982-83 television season entitled, "We're NBC, Just Watch Us Now." He would also go on to perform slogans for CBS and ABC, and record commercials for Amtrak, singing the slogan "There's something about a train that's magic."

In 1993, Havens performed at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. And in 1999, Havens played at the Tibetan Freedom Concert for an audience of more than 100,000.

Increasingly, Havens devoted his energies to educating young people about ecological issues. In the mid-1970s, he co-founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx. He subsequently founded The Natural Guard, an organization Richie describes as "a way of helping kids learn that they can have a hands-on role in affecting the environment."