In more than a few ways, Richie Havens seemed the ideal invitee for the recent 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 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.
For Havens, a veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s, being his own boss followed flings with major labels (Polydor, A&M, Elektra) and high-profile management (by Albert Grossman, whose clients included Janis Joplin, The Band, Odetta, Todd Rundgren and Bob Dylan).
Mapping his career as a concert performer wasn't too daunting. (He'll appear at Spirit Square's McGlohon Theatre in December.) Many of his New York contemporaries helped guide him. 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.”
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. 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, but those relationships were 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. “It also made me seek out and work with people that really liked music still.”
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.”
Last year, 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 recorded a 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.
“I was immediately going, ‘Oh boy, this is really far out,'” Havens said. “Because, you see, I knew who they were talking about. And I tell you, Dylan was in that movie – especially with Cate Blanchett … Once she starts, you cannot not see Bob Dylan. And it was the Bob Dylan I know, too.”