A Brooklyn native, Havens grew up singing in gospel ensembles and gravitated toward the Greenwich Village folk music scene as a young man. Harboring an eccentric guitar playing style and a rich baritone, Havens quickly gained renown as a live performer, and was discovered by Bob Dylan manager Albert Grossman, who secured him a record contract.
Having scored a few modest successes for the Verve Records label in the late-’60s, Havens was invited to open 1969’s Woodstock Festival. While organizers awaited latecoming performers, Havens held the stage for more than two and a half hours, eventually running out of material and improvising a tune later titled “Freedom,” which was featured prominently in Michael Wadleigh’s hit documentary chronicle of the fest, and eventually became his signature.
The following year, Havens reached his chart peak with the album “Alarm Clock,” which topped out at No. 29, and a cover of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which reached No. 16 on the singles chart. He performed on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and made his film debut as Othello in the 1974 musical “Catch My Soul.” Later roles came in the 1977 Richard Pryor vehicle “Greased Lightning” and 2007’s quasi-Dylan biopic “I’m Not There.”
A consistently dogged performer throughout his life, Havens later sang at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, and during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. His last album, “Nobody Left to Crown,” was released in 2008.