John Denver Biography

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

the classic country music of the era. His other grandmother also shaped his musical education by giving him an antique Gibson guitar. In 1957 the family settled in Fort Worth, Texas; Denver attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock and sang in a folk-music group called the Alpine Trio while pursuing architecture studies.

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.

Formed Foundation

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.

User Contributions:

Diana Miller
This is a great inside look at Denver's life. He was 2 years older than me and I loved his music and listened (still do) as I traveled over this great land. I am also from West Virginia and have traveled and camped in every state, so I can relate to his love for this great land God has created for our enjoyment and the responsibility we have of caring for it. And yes, West Virginia is "almost heaven" when you get deep into it's mountains and valleys. It's people are simple and genuine.
I would love to know if Denver's daughter, Jesse Belle, has any of the musical talent that her father had? Does she still reside in California and does she realize how many millions of people her father touched with his music and his caring for the people and the world in which we live? His music still moves me to tears of gratitude, inspires me on moments of discouragement and also makes me want to dance! What a great contribution John Denver was to this world!
Sharon Miller
I loved John Denver and his music, not a day goes by that I don't hum a song or I am reminded of his songs, talent, and Love of Nature and Human Perseverance. Todays music stars Dont come close to his music, heart, and soul! Really miss his music! I agree, love to know more about his daughter and how his other children are?
Kimberly Baker
He was a good singer I remember him on the muppets when I was a kid I use to listen to some of his music I liked when he song songs on the muppets show I didn't know he had 3 kids I remember he has a daughter I didn't know he adopted two kids that's a good thing to do
My Uncle Norm gave me one of his acoustic guitars back in 1970 and taught me to play on a steady diet of Peter,Paul & Mary and this up and coming star my uncle thought, and proved correctly, one John Denver. I was 12 years old. At 14 I had the same long brownish blond hair, granny glasses, green and black checked coat, cowboy hat on my head held by my right hand and my guiar in my left with the intoxicating ear to ear grin. I acted through high school and more than once portrayed my hero and His life changing music. I was privliged to expierence His music live in concert. Two out of three concerts I've ever been too(Harry Chapin being the only other artist's concert I've been too) How ironic and how sad. I was schocked at Chapin's passing and I was devasted by John's tragic passing years later. As talented and profound as He was, I believe we all had just seen the tip of 'The Mountain' that would have come. I am 58 now. His music has had a profound impact on my life since my uncle gave me "That Old Guitar" Because of the love that radiates out of His songs to me, I was privileged to be able to be a worship leader at my church for 14 years, playing my guitar and singing to My God! Thank You Mr. Denver. Your music will continue to make a difference in peoples lives. I think that's what you were trying to do all along, Make a difference!!!
As I listen to John Denver on my IPOD. I remember listening to his records when I was i kid. and remember where I was the day I heard he was killed. Great Man with Great Talent. He will always live on in my heart.
Brenda Stevens
Wow! Because of John Denver and his music, I have wanted to learn guitar since I was about 9 or 10 years old. Finally, a year and half ago at age 51, I bought a guitar and started taking lessons. I am really enjoying learning, and LOVE to practice. Someday I hope to be able to play all of my favorite John Denver songs! Because John Denver inspired, I am now blessing others with my music (at least, that's what they tell me).
June Ann
I was about seven or eight years old when John Denver came to Charleston, West Virginia to perform on the back of a flat bed truck. My parents went to see this John Denver but for whatever reason I chose not to go. It is one of the regrets I have in this lifetime.

Because I could have experienced his performance before he was really famous. It was after that when I first heard country Road's that I regretted not going to see him. Throughout my later life listening to his music always brought me closer to my inner-spirit. And also lifted me up when I was down. When I would take walks, After moving to North Carolina from West Virginia, I would take his music with me either on a CD player or a cassette player. It just made me Feel more in tune with nature.

When I was 45 years old I had a stroke folllowing hip replacement. I felt very disconnected from God until one day I was out doors listening to none other than John Denver. It wars through that beautiful music and voice that I was able to connect with my spirit within.
Jaye Deete
@Robert Dennis Stamm. The aircraft was a used Long-EZ, not built by John Denver. It had flown for 3 or 4 years before Denver bought it. The fuel switch was located behind the pilot's seat, which at least 2 expert Long-EZ pilots told Denver to have it moved to a better location. After running out of fuel in one of the two tanks, he apparently pressed the right rudder pedal while twisting to the left in his seat to switch fuel tanks. At the low altitude there was not enough time to recover from the ensuing hard bank.
Cause of death was decapitation.
Cindy Metzing Thompson
I remember the first time I ever heard John Denver singing, it was, 'Take Me Home Country Roads'... we were in Eastern Tennessee driving through the mountains in misty rain and I was completely amazed. His tender manly voice, so pure, clear and bright captivated me but his lyrics, and what I consider to be rare musical compositions & arrangements lured me to keep buying his releases to hear ALL the songs he'd published so that I wouldn't miss any that the radio might not play.
When my children were born and learned to speak/sing, 'Sunshine on My Shoulders' was one of the first songs they knew... yes, John Denver brought us so much and I'm sooo thankful that he (& Annie) shared so much of his heart and life with the world, and that he noticed simple joys like sunshine on his shoulders and knew we needed to celebrate these little things, in fact, celebrate all the little things and be happier people. I can think of so many of his songs that simply bring life to a higher level, 'Poems, Prayers and Promises', 'Annie's Song'...
I just wish I could have thanked him in person somehow...but somehow, I think he knows. :)
John Wyatt Holiman
PBS had John Denver on the TV tonight (November 30,2020) his music brings back memory's of a better
time's gone now.
I look behind me and i try to see thru clouds of yesterday that are now
gone forever.

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