Singer best known for spectacular performance at Woodstock festival

Richie Havens – born: January 21st, 1941; died: April 22nd, 2013

Richie Havens: improvised the anthem ‘Freedom’ on stage. Photograph: Getty Images

Richie Havens: improvised the anthem ‘Freedom’ on stage. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Apr 27, 2013, 06:00

Richie Havens, who has died of a heart attack aged 72, is best known for his opening performance at the historic 1969 Woodstock festival.

He entranced the audience for three hours, being called back time and again for encores. With his repertoire exhausted, he improvised a song based on the spiritual Motherless Child . This became Freedom , his best-known song and an anthem for a generation.

His inclusion on the subsequent film of the festival further enhanced his reputation. The song was included on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 slavery-era film Django Unchained .

Born in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest of nine, Havens sang with the McCrea Gospel Singers at the age of 16.

At 20, he moved to Greenwich Village to read poetry, learned the guitar and began performing in folk venues.

His distinctive guitar playing and soulful, gruff singing style marked him out as a performer to watch. After a couple of albums on the Douglas label, Havens was signed up by Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who secured a record deal with Verve Records.

The first album with Verve , Mixed Bag (1967), included his own anti-war ballad Handsome Johnny (co-written with the actor Louis Gossett jnr), and a handful of covers, including Eleanor Rigby and Dylan’s Just Like a Woman .

His Woodstock success encouraged Havens to found his own record label, Stormy Forest. His second record on the label, Alarm Clock (1971), was his highest charting album, and a single of George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun made the US top 20.

In the 1970s, he diversified into acting. He also became concerned about educating young people about ecological issues. He co-founded a children’s oceanographic museum in the Bronx, the North Wind Undersea Institute.

Havens sang at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration. He is survived by four daughters.