American singer and songwriter John Denver (1943–1997) gained international popularity in the 1970s with pleasant, well-crafted songs, many of them extolling the beauties and the spiritual gifts of the natural world.
Denver backed up his ideas with activism in later years, devoting his energies to the causes of land conservation and environmental awareness. His death in an aviation accident at age 53 shocked his numerous fans, 1,500 of whom turned out for a memorial service held in Aspen, Colorado, where he had lived for many years. "We made a fortune, tens and tens of millions of dollars," Denver's manager told Peter Castro of People , reflecting on Denver's influence. "If you give Elvis the '50s and the Beatles the '60s, I think you've got to give John Denver the '70s."
Raised in Military Family
Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on December 31, 1943, in the military town of Roswell, New Mexico. His father, nicknamed "Dutch," was a U.S. Air Force test pilot whose hard-drinking ways were transferred to his son. New Air Force postings took the family to various southern and southwestern states, and temporarily to Japan; Denver often clashed with his conservative father, and he once tried to run away from home. His happiest times came on his grandmother's farm in Oklahoma, where he heard
California's folk and rock music scenes were growing rapidly in the early and middle 1960s, and in 1964 Denver dropped out of Texas Tech and moved to Los Angeles, making up the stage name John Denver to indicate a general attraction to the mountainous West. He began performing at Ledbetter's nightclub and signed on as lead vocalist for a group called the Back Porch Majority. In 1965 he scored a breakthrough when he replaced Chad Mitchell as vocalist, guitarist, and banjoist for the Chad Mitchell Trio, a prime attraction on college campuses and in folk-oriented coffeehouses. Denver bested some 250 other performers who auditioned for the job.
Performing with the group at a college in Minnesota, Denver met sophomore Annie Martell; the two were married the following year and later adopted two children. Denver began to focus on songwriting, and he released a solo album, Rhymes and Reasons , in 1968 after the Mitchell Trio disbanded. The album included the "Ballad of Richard Nixon," and another song about Vice President Spiro Agnew; and it also contained "Leaving on a Jet Plane," a song Denver wrote in a single evening after he locked himself in his room, as he later recalled, with a pound of salami and a six-pack of beer. It was originally titled "Babe, I Hate to Go." The young couple's finances were boosted when "Leaving on a Jet Plane" was recorded by folk superstars Peter, Paul & Mary and became a major pop hit, its depiction of a sweet but slightly ominous separation of two lovers striking a chord at the height of the Vietnam War. Denver was able to fulfill his dream by moving to Aspen, Colorado, in 1970.
He continued to record folk-pop albums for the RCA label, and in 1971 he emerged as a star with "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver co-wrote the song with Bill and Taffy Danoff, and over the next decade he would write or co-write most of the material that made him a pop phenomenon. "The songs would just come from him, as if he was a vehicle from God that the songs flowed through," Annie Denver was quoted as saying in the Denver Post after Denver's death. "It was a part of him that he wasn't very ego-attached to. The man was driven to write songs. The music came out of a very deep place. And oftentimes, out of that deepness, John felt very alone. If you listen to his songs, there's a lot of loneliness there."
Crossed Genre Boundaries
More hits followed, including "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "Annie's Song" (dedicated to his wife and reportedly written in ten minutes on a Colorado ski lift), "Sunshine on My Shoulders," and "Some Days Are Diamonds." Perhaps the most memorable, at least for residents of his home state, was the Colorado ode "Rocky Mountain High," which praised "the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake" and wrapped up the back-to-nature philosophies of the 1960s counterculture in a universally appealing package. Colorado governor John Vanderhoof named Denver the state's poet laureate in 1974. Denver's songs were equally popular among pop and country audiences, and Denver took home the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award in 1975. Country traditionalists were dismayed; awards-show host Charlie Rich actually set fire to Denver's award envelope with a cigarette lighter.
The divide between popular taste and the attitudes of music critics was widening in the early 1970s, and Denver was never a critical favorite. British rock writer Dave Laing even referred to "Sunshine on My Shoulders" as "egregious" in Denver's obituary. Denver's image, with his mop-top haircut and wire-rimmed "granny" glasses, was about 15 years out of date at the peak of his fame, harking back to the collegiate-folk stage of his career, and his predominantly optimistic lyrics ("Some Days Are Diamonds" being an exception) were derided as sentimental or over-sweet.
Denver responded mildly to such criticisms, telling People that "some of my songs are about very simple things in life. But those simple things are meaningful to me and have obviously meant something to people all over the world, even if it's only in a karaoke bar." His music was defended by country singer Kathy Mattea. "A lot of people write him off as lightweight," she told Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly . "But he articulated a kind of optimism, and he brought acoustic music to the forefront, bridging folk, pop, and country in a fresh way…. People forget how huge he was worldwide."
Indeed, Denver in the mid-1970s was arguably America's most celebrated male entertainer. His 1973 Greatest Hits album remained on Billboard magazine's chart of top album sellers for about three years. In 1975 and 1976, Denver won four American Music Awards—honors that measured the sentiments of music buyers rather than industry figures. Of his 24 albums released on the RCA label during his lifetime, 14 were eventually certified gold (for sales of 500,000 copies), and eight of those reached the platinum or million-seller mark.
Denver succeeded in extending his run in the spotlight well into the 1980s. He appeared opposite octogenarian comedian George Burns in the film Oh, God! (1977), and he served as host for numerous television specials; one of them, 1975's Rocky Mountain Christmas , was issued in album form and also won him an Emmy Award. He sang duets with vocalists ranging from opera star Plácido Domingo to musical comedienne Julie Andrews to roots-country revivalist Emmylou Harris (the underrated "Wild Montana Skies"). He founded the Windstar (or Windsong) label, which released the disco hit "Afternoon Delight," recorded by Bill and Taffy Danoff as the Starland Vocal Band. But he also began to look toward a future in which he would work to safeguard the wilderness that had inspired many of his best songs. He founded the nonprofit Windstar Foundation in 1976 and the World Hunger Project in 1977.
The latter enterprise got him appointed to the Commission on World and Domestic Hunger by President Jimmy Carter. Having generally avoided political themes in his music up to that point, Denver devoted much of his energy to political causes in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to wilderness and wildlife preservation, he was active in support of world anti-hunger initiatives, the United Nations Children's Fund and other projects aimed at improving the lives of children, and of peace groups and organizations opposed to the spread of nuclear weaponry. Although he was critical of Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Denver worked effectively with leaders of both parties, and in 1987 he received the Presidential World Without Hunger Award from Reagan. That was followed by an Albert Schweitzer Music Award for humanitarian activity in 1993, making Denver the first musician from outside the classical sphere to earn the award. (Albert Schweitzer was a world-famous humanitarian, theologian, and classical organist who served as a medical relief worker in Africa.)
When Denver did perform or record during the 1980s and early 1990s his music often served activist ends. He toured the Soviet Union and recorded a song, "Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?)," with Russian vocalist Alexandre Gradsky, and in 1992 he became one of the first Western pop artists to tour in modern-day Communist China. Denver also gave a concert in the Soviet Union to benefit survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster, and his 1980 television special Rocky Mountain Reunion , dealing with species endangerment, won several awards.
Denver's personal life during his later years was less happy. After what he admitted were multiple episodes of infidelity, Denver's wife, Annie, asked him for a divorce in 1982. A second marriage in 1988 to young Australian actress Cassandra Delaney produced a daughter, Jesse Belle, but also ended in divorce. Denver was also troubled by his inability to get a major label recording contract; his last several albums were issued on his own Windstar label. "There's a thing they call the Dark Night of the Soul," he was quoted as saying by Nash. "I've been through that, and I've survived it." Twice in the early 1990s Denver was arrested on charges of driving drunk.
One bright spot for Denver came from his aviation hobby, which he took up in the mid-1970s. Denver's father taught him to fly, and the experience helped bring about a reconciliation between father and son. He became an experienced pilot, flying his own planes in Colorado, on tour, and in California's Monterey Peninsula area, where he rented a home in Carmel so that he could be near Delaney and Jesse Belle. It was there that he purchased a Long EZ aircraft from a local veterinarian in the summer of 1997. The plane model was classified as experimental, but it was well known among aviation enthusiasts, and Denver experienced no problems during lessons in Santa Maria, California.
On October 12, 1997, Denver played golf with friends and looked forward to an hour of flying his new aircraft over the ocean. Several practice takeoffs and landings went off uneventfully, but apparently drained one of the plane's two fuel tanks. Late in the afternoon, onlookers saw Denver's plane plummet into the ocean after what appeared to be an engine failure. The singer was probably killed instantly. Denver's pilot's license, due to his drunk-driving arrests, was missing the medical endorsement required to make it legal, and toxicology tests were run on his remains, but they came back negative. Denver is thought to have lost control of the plane while fumbling with a lever that shifted the engine's fuel supply from one tank to the other. A strong outpouring of fan emotion followed his tragic death, and a musical featuring his songs, Almost Heaven , had its premiere in 2005. The show, noted Variety reviewer Mark Blankenship, "pays excellent tribute to an artist who remains great at making people feel good."
Contemporary Musicians , volume 22, Gale, 1998.
Denver, John, Take Me Home: An Autobiography , Harmony, 1994.
Denver Post , October 14, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly , October 24, 1997; October 18, 2002.
Guardian (London, England), October 14, 1997.
People , October 27, 1997.
Variety , November 14, 2005.