NEW YORK -- Richie Havens, the folk singer and guitarist who was the first performer at Woodstock, died Monday at age 72.
Havens died of a heart attack in New Jersey, his family said in a statement. He was born in Brooklyn.
Havens was known for his crafty guitar work and covers, including his version of Bob Dylan's Just Like a Woman.
His performance at the three-day 1969 Woodstock Festival was a turning point in his career. He was the first act to hit the stage, performing for nearly three hours. His performance of Freedom became an anthem.
Havens returned to the site during Woodstock's 40th anniversary in 2009.
"Everything in my life, and so many others, is attached to that train," he said in an interview that year with The Associated Press.
Woodstock remains one of the events that continues to define the 1960s in the popular imagination. Performers included The Who, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the trippy anarchy has become legendary. There was lots of nudity, casual sex, dirty dancing and open drug use.
Havens had originally been scheduled to go on fifth but had been bumped up because of travel delays. Festival producer Michael Lang said in the book The Road to Woodstock that he chose Havens "because of his calm but powerful demeanour."
His performance lasted hours because the next act hadn't showed up.
"So I'd go back and sing three more," Havens said in an interview with NPR. "This happened six times. So I sung every song I knew."
Havens' website said that he had kidney surgery in 2010 and that he never recovered enough to perform the way he used to. He performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993.
Havens, who released his breakthrough, Mixed Bag, in 1967, released more than 25 albums. He sang with doo-wop groups on the street corner in his Brooklyn neighbourhood at an early age. At 20, he moved to Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where he performed poetry, listened to folk music and learned how to play the guitar.
"I saw the Village as a place to escape to in order to express yourself," he said in his biography.
"Richie Havens was one of the nicest most generous and pure individuals I have ever met," Stephen Stills said in a statement, adding that Havens was unique and could "never be replicated."
"When I was a young sprite in Greenwich Village, we used to have breakfast together at the diner on 6th Avenue next to The Waverly Theatre. He was very wise in the ways of our calling. He always caught fire every time he played."
Havens' last album was 2008's Nobody Left to Crown.
"I really sing songs that move me," he said in an interview with The Denver Post. "I'm not in show business; I'm in the communications business."
Havens was the eldest of nine children. He is survived by his three daughters and many grandchildren.
A public memorial for Havens will be planned.
-- The Associated Press