LEXINGTON, Ky. - In more than a few ways, Richie Havens seems the ideal invitee for Monday’s 500th broadcast of “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.” Over the years, both have been fiercely independent in establishing their respective folk music followings.
In the case of “WoodSongs,” the program has grown under the direction of host/founder Michael Johnathon from a coffeehouse-style broadcast with a small, devout recording studio audience to sold-out tapings at The Kentucky Theatre. The shows are heard on nearly 500 radio stations worldwide and broadcast in video on the Internet and on PBS stations.
Nobody Left to Crown
(Verve Forecast; US: 29 Jul 2008; UK: 31 Mar 2008)
For Havens, a veteran of a famed Greenwich Village folk scene during the 1960s, being his own boss followed initial flings with major labels (Polydor, A&M, Elektra) and high-profile management (by Albert Grossman, whose other clients included Janis Joplin, The Band, Odetta, Todd Rundgren and Bob Dylan).
Learning to map out his career as a concert performer wasn’t too daunting. Many of his New York contemporaries helped guide him along that path. But as a recording artist, the road ahead was a mystery and an adventure.
“I’ve been sort of managing and taking care of myself since 1970,” said, Havens, 67. “I learned how to enter the market because I was a total independent that still had the luxury of being with some of the guys who mentored me in the Village. But one of the things they didn’t want to bother with was making records. For them it was, ‘I like playing onstage to living people.’ But then record companies came around.”
The first lesson on independence was a victory that seems larger now than it might have at the time. After a string of albums for MGM (a deal secured with Grossman’s help), the label was sold. But in an almost unheard-of turn for a then-new artist, Havens secured the master tapes of those recordings, which included his acclaimed 1967 debut album, “Mixed Bag.”
“Only two guys got their masters back when MGM was sold - Frankie Valli and me.”
So beginning in 1970, after a career-defining appearance at Woodstock the previous summer, Havens issued recordings on his own label, Stormy Forest. Albums such as “Stonehenge” (1970), “Alarm Clock” (1971) and “Richie Havens on Stage” (1972) underscored a folk avenue that possessed a deep strand of social awareness in its lyrics, a pop sensibility in its choice of cover material and a musical makeup built around acoustic guitar and congas. And then there was Havens’ voice - a rich, reedy singing tool that could sound alternately warm and desperate.
Return associations with major labels would follow in ensuing years, but those relationships were invariably brief. The labels fired the executives who championed Havens’ music, were bought out like MGM or else folded.
“That’s probably happened to me about seven times,” Havens said. “But it somehow gave me a better pacing for myself and my career. It also made me seek out and work with people that really liked music still.”
As to the latter, Havens points to a song on his new album, “Nobody Left to Crown.” The tune is “Lives in the Balance,” a 20-year-old slice of heated social commentary written by Jackson Browne. But adding to the performance’s rich musical fabric is an ambassador of a new rock generation: guitarist Derek Trucks.
“Working with Derek was extraordinary,” Havens said. “I actually have a video of him playing music when he was about 10. Watching it, I was listening to this kid and looking at his face. And he was just gone. He was playing away but had total control. I just went, ‘Wow.’”
But what continues to astound most about Havens’ music is that, despite the immediately recognizable tenor, it has become adaptable on so many different projects.
His 2000 collaboration with the electronica duo Groove Armada, “Hands of Time,” was used in several film soundtracks, most notably the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx thriller “Collateral.” Havens was also part of the artistic team hand-picked by Peter Gabriel for his millennium performance piece called “OVO.”
“Peter is such a melody himself,” Havens said of the “OVO” experience. “What comes through him is very high-end reverence.”
Last year, though, Havens, in effect, came home. He was offered a cameo role in the Todd Hayne fantasy biopic of Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There.” He teamed with producer Joe Henry to record a propulsive and percussive version of the Dylan classic “Tombstone Blues” for the soundtrack.
Given that Dylan was a contemporary of the same New York folk scene that nurtured Havens, the project resonated in strong personal terms.
“So I went to Canada where they were shooting and to see what it was I had to do,” Havens said. “And I was immediately going, ‘Oh boy, this is really far out.’ Because, you see, I knew who they were talking about. And I tell you, Dylan was in that movie - especially with Cate Blanchett. It is so ironic, but so unbelievable at the same time. Once she starts, you cannot not see Bob Dylan. And it was the Bob Dylan I know, too.”