Richie Havens, the folk singer and guitarist whose iconic performance opened the Woodstock Festival in 1969, died this morning of a sudden heart attack at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 72 years old.

"While his family greatly appreciates that Richie's many fans are also mourning this loss, they do ask for privacy during this difficult time," his publicist said in a statement released to CNN.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, as the eldest of nine children, Havens performed prolifically throughout his lifetime. He played in street corner doo-wop groups while growing up, and headed to Greenwich Village at age 20 to join the burgeoning artistic scene.

"I saw the Village as a place to escape to in order to express yourself," Havens said in his website biography. "I had first gone there during the beatnik days of the 1950s to perform poetry, then I drew portraits for 2 years and stayed up all night listening to folk music in the clubs. It took a while before I thought of picking up a guitar."

Havens released his debut album "Mixed Bag" in 1967, and the five subsequent albums he released by 1969 expanded his reputation enough to earn him the opening performance at the Woodstock Festival. He "held the crowd spellbound for nearly three hours, called back for encore after encore," and his improvised performance of "Freedom," derived from the spiritual "Motherless Child" became an era-defining anthem.

His popularity exploded after the Woodstock concert documentary footage went into wide release, kicking off a decades-long career during which he recorded more than 25 albums, acted in several films, and performed at Bill Clinton's Presidential Inauguration in 1993.

Havens was also involved in community outreach. In the mid-1970s, he helped found the Northwind Undersea Institute, a children's museum on City Island in The Bronx devoted to oceanography, as well as The Natural Guard, an organization that he described in his biography as "a way of helping kids learn that they can have a hands-on role in affecting the environment," helping children to "study the land, water, and air in their own communities and see how they can make positive changes from something as simple as planting a garden in an abandoned lot."

Havens ended his long touring career in March 2012 because of health issues following a kidney surgery in 2010, in a retirement announcement his publicists made on his Facebook page:

"As many of you already know, Richie had kidney surgery a year and a half ago. Though he did return to the stage after that for numerous concerts, he truly never regained the physical strength required to put on the kind of shows for which he's always been known, and coupled with ongoing health concerns, the traveling and performing have simply become too hard on him for him to be able to continue. After 45 years of non-stop touring, this is a sad and unexpected reality."

Havens is survived by four daughters and five grandchildren, according to Billboard.

"Say not in grief 'he is no more' but live in thankfulness that he was," announced the Richie Havens Facebook page after news of his death broke.