Richie Havens took his teeth out to sing

My mother always said that she liked Richie Havens because he took his teeth out to sing. This is something that came up often, usually on the heels of someone who couldn’t sing very well becoming famous because they were good looking. She liked that he cared more about how he sounded (better without the fake teeth) than how he looked- although, you know, he was fabulous looking. There was something about this that always felt important. If you have that much talent, you don’t need teeth.

Richie Havens just was. He wasn’t Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison prancing around on stage being all “look at me! look at me!” about things. He wasn’t collecting groupies as far as I know. He just sat up there with his guitar, and simply sang his songs. He didn’t have a persona, I think, is what I’m getting at. He had no guile.

He was notable to most as the opening act at Woodstock, where he famously improvised the song “Freedom” while doing an interpretation of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” That alone would have secured him a place as  ’60s icon forever, although one doesn’t hear him mentioned as often as Dylan or Joni Mitchell. He continued touring and releasing albums and working for social and ecological justice up until March of this year, when his health became too much of an issue to continue on.

It’s almost appropriate that Havens passed away yesterday, on Earth Day. He devoted much of his life to educating children about ecological issues- from co-founding The Northwind Undersea Institute (an oceanographic children’s museum in the Bronx) to creating The Natural Guard, which he describes on his website as  “a way of helping kids learn that they can have a hands-on role in affecting the environment. Children study the land, water, and air in their own communities and see how they can make positive changes from something as simple as planting a garden in an abandoned lot.”

My favorite Richie Havens song has always been his version of “High Flyin’ Bird.” It’s what I listen to when I need a good cry, so it’s probably pretty appropriate for today.