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Richie Havens, Folk Singer Who Opened Woodstock, Dead at 72

Richie Havens Douglas Mason/Getty Images

Richie Havens, the folk singer and guitarist who shot to fame as the first performer at the 1969 Woodstock festival, died Monday after suffering a heart attack at his home in Jersey City, N.J.

He was 72.

A statement on his official website confirmed his death and announced that a public memorial is being planned for a future date.

"Beyond his music, those who have met Havens will remember his gentle and compassionate nature, his light humor and his powerful presence," it said.

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Havens' career spanned five decades and more two dozen albums.

With his signature, intense rhythmic guitar style and soulful covers of pop and folks songs, Havens built a devoted following on the Greenwich Village folk circuit in the early 1960s. But it was his gig as the opening act at the original Woodstock, in which he held the crowd enraptured for nearly three solid hours, that cemented his career, playing his seminal song "Freedom" for the encore as well as a number of Beatles songs.

After Woodstock, the singer started his own record label and released Alarm Clock, which was his first album to reach the Billboard Top 30 chart. In the '70s, Havens tried his hand at acting, appearing in the 1972 stage presentation of The Who's Tommy as well as appearances in the films Catch My Soul and Greased Lightning with Richard Pryor.

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In the '80s, Havens recorded various slogans for all three broadcast networks, but returned to prominence performing in 1993 performing at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration as well as the 1999 Tibetan Freedom Concert.

Born Jan. 21, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Havens got his start singing with friends in street-corner doo-wop groups and performing poetry during the Beatnik era before picking up the guitar and signing with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. His albums included 1967's Mixed Bag, which contained one of his biggest songs, "Follow," as well as "Johnny Handsome" cowritten with actor Louis Gossett Jr.

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More recently, Havens collaborated with electronica stars Groove Armada for the '70s-inflected ditty "Hands of Time." He also had a cameo in Todd Haynes' Dylan biopic I'm Not There and performed at a benefit concert in honor of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday.

His heath, however, began to fail him and after undergoing kidney surgery, Havens announced his retirement from the road last year.

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