Thursday, May 9, 2013
April Milestones: Memories of Richie Havens
As we move away from April, that proverbially cruel month, I was touched by the passing of a couple of musical greats and the anniversary of the death of a third.
Richie Havens and George Jones, when paired in the same sentence seem so opposite as to be almost comical. Havens, soft-spoken and weary-voiced, the hard working balladeer.
Jones, the hard-living, outrageous showman whose antics became as legendary as his voice and his career. One toiled on the club circuit (with a brief moment of world fame) and the other had his string of hits, the Grand Ole Opry and the ultimate country music partner in Tammy Wynette.
I got a chance to meet Havens in April of 1968. He was scheduled to do a concert at Wesleyan the weekend after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The concert was cancelled but no one had informed him before he left New York City. When he arrived, a couple of the guys hosting, brought him down to our fraternity house for a cup of coffee before he made the return trip. So we stood around the kitchen of the Beta House for a while, making awkward small talk about the tragedy and why we could not do the concert.
At this point, Havens' album, “Mixed Bag” (released in the musical magical year of 1967) had launched him with a series of great covers, including his rendition of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,“ the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Tuli Kupferberg’s “Morning, Morning.” It also included a song Havens wrote with Lou Gossett called “Handsome Johnny.”
I don’t remember a lot from that afternoon (it was the 60’s and my thesis was due) but I still carry this image of his presence: Dressed in leather and beads, with rings on every finger and that soft voice and gentle manner that seemed to radiate a “Summer of Love” vibe. It was more than a year before he would make history at Woodstock.
The down home charm that made Havens so likeable also seemed to be one of the ingredients in Levon Helm’s propularity with fans and colleagues. He died in April of last year and there is a new tribute album produced by Don Was called “Love for Levon.” The concert was recorded in October, 2012 and the incredible list of guest artists (Roger Waters, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Bruce Hornsby, etc., etc.) reprised much the The Band’s catalogue of hits.
As Don Was told Bob Edwards, “without the Band, there would be no Americana Music Awards.” They left “an eduring, irreversible legacy.”
Was, when asked about the volatle life cycles of rock and roll bands, offered this explanation: “Bands are crazy. They get together with this dream of conquering the world. If they make it, then they set out to conquer each other.”