Has it really been 40 years since Richie Havens, destined to be the greatest folk performer America ever produced, was silenced by a freak dentistry accident? It doesn’t seem that long. The legend’s music continues to grow in popularity.
Since he met death — so soon after the overnight stardom that came with his electrifying, show-opening set at Woodstock — Havens has sold more than 30 million albums, been the subject of a hit Broadway musical (“Richie!”) and inspired the star-studded tribute album, “For Haven’s Sake,” which found the likes of R.E.M., Macy Gray, Metallica and Ray La Montagne repaying their musical debt.
Expect the Havens legacy to reach even greater heights with next month’s release of the $30 million biopic “A Tough Act to Follow,” with Samuel L. Jackson in the starring role. The project has seen its share of controversy, with director Spike Lee furiously denouncing the choice of Cameron Crowe, who is white, to direct. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, currently on the CSN&H reunion tour, plans to boycott the movie about his good friend because it contains alleged misinformation about Havens’ mysterious death. “The movie has himgoing to the dentist to have false teeth inserted,” said Hendrix, the former “Tonight Show” bandleader whose spats with “Tonight Show” host Freddie Prinze were great gossip fodder. “But anyone who knew Richie knows he liked having no front choppers. He said teeth only got in the way of his message, which was to seek independence at all costs.”
It’s that rebel vision, author J. Randy Taraborrelli claims, that made Havens dangerous to the government. His book “Kill the Messenger” accuses the CIA of doping the fatal Novocaine syringe with a lethal dose of heroin.
That theory is refuted by author Joe McGinniss, who was hired by the Havens family to investigate the dentist (why use Novocaine for a denture fitting?). McGinniss’ “No Haven From Greed” makes the case that Richie’s death was an elaborate coverup engineered by his family, looking to rake in malpractice millions. Another theory, promoted in an upcoming documentary by Nick (“Kurt and Courtney”) Broomfield was that Havens, despondent over the breakup of the Beatles, realized he’d have no new material to cover and took his own life.
As the various theories fight it out on the bookshelves and on the screen, the music of Havens tells the true story of the man who rose from the ghettos of Brooklyn to sing a song of “Freedom” heard round the world. At times he could be as gentle as a toddler’s footstep on a crispy leaf, but when he brought the hammer down with his trademark hard-strumming passion, he was more like a teenager jumping into a whole pile of leaves.
Such range can be found in the posthumously released records that have inspired a new generation of fans. “Richie Does the Beatles,” “Richie Does the Beatles Again” and “Richie Does the Beatles? Nope, It’s Dylan This Time” are essential recordings.
It’s so sad to think of all the incredible music we’ve been robbed up these past four decades.