Frank Malfitano met Richie Havens at Woodstock in 1969. But he knew and admired him before that.”I think Mixed Bag (1967) is one of the greatest albums of all time,” says Malfitano, the Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest founder and producer. “It’s a masterpiece.”
Havens immediately struck Malfitano as something extraordinary and “out of left field.”
“He wasn’t traditional,” Malfitano says. “He became the pre-eminent singer-songwriter. He had his own style and sound and he, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker – they are singular in their ability to make songs their own. No one interpreted The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix like Richie.”
Havens landed at Jazz Fest in 2010 with Gil Scott-Heron. Havens’ friendship with Malfitano became strong enough that when the idea of a memorial celebration and aerial scattering of Havens’ ashes surfaced after his death on April 22, Havens’ manager, Leslie Hawes, requested that Malfitano be the man to make it happen.
“Back to the Garden: A Day of Song and Remembrance Honoring Richie Havens” takes place Sunday, Aug. 18, at the Bethel Woods Market Shed, in Bethel. The Bethel Woods grounds, including the Museum at Bethel Woods and the featured temporary exhibits, will open at 10 a.m. The music will begin at 3 p.m. Admission is free.
The celebration will combine the solemn scattering of ashes over the Woodstock grounds, Havens’ wish for many years, and guest appearances from friends and fellow activists Danny Glover and Louis Gossett Jr. (who wrote “Handsome Johnny” with Havens) and original Woodstock Festival organizers Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman.
Musical appearances will include Jose Feliciano, John Hammond, John Sebastian, Guy Davis, Steve Gorn with Sanjoy Bandopadhyay and Samier Chatterjee, Stephanie Winters and Walter Parks and Dayna Kurtz. The performances will be hosted by Sirius radio personality Dennis Elsas. However, the appearances might not stop there.
“The people who will be there really love him and understand what he’s about,” Malfitano says. That’s why he wouldn’t be surprised if people like Derek Trucks roll up to the event. “Derek knew him since he was 10 years old. And Peach Fest is happening down in Scranton with The Allman Brothers Band. Derek, Warren Haynes, Bob Weir – their people have been in touch.”
Either way, press and fans from around the world are bound to make the trip to honor the legendary musician.
“He’s not just a great singer, or a great guitarist, or a great musician” Malfitano emphasizes. “He was a great human being. He was otherworldly and his music has lasted for 50 years. He was a man all about peace and love, and “Handsome Johnny” is one of the greatest anti-war songs ever written. Not anti-soldier, never anti-soldier. Anti-war.”
After the musical acts, Havens’ ashes will be scattered with flower petals from the air over the grounds that Havens performed on 44 years ago. Tickets to the seated performance area are no longer available, but anyone who wishes to attend is welcome. Everyone in attendance will be able to hear thanks to supplemental sound courtesy of Bethel Woods, and the scattering will be visible from the field.
“I have to pinch myself,” Malfitano says of being asked to produce the event. “I’m just a guy from Syracuse. It’s a great honor.”
Asked if he saw this coming when he started in the industry, or around the time when he met Havens, the answer is firm: “Hell no. I was just a music junkie. I still am. I was just trying to serve the music. I’m still trying to serve the music.”