John Denver (December 31, 1943 ??? October 12, 1997) was an American country music/folk singer-songwriter and folk rock musician. He was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the 1970s in terms of record sales, recording and releasing around 300 songs, of which about 200 were composed by him. He was named Poet Laureate of Colorado in 1977. Songs such as "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (1967), "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (1971), "Rocky Mountain High" (1972), "Sunshine on My Shoulders" (1973), "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" (1974), "Annie's Song" (1974), and "Calypso" (1975) are popular worldwide. Denver has been referred to as "The Poet for the Planet", "Mother Nature's Son" (based on The Beatles song he covered) and "A Song's Best Friend".
Denver was born in Roswell, New Mexico as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. to Erma Louise Swope and Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., an Air Force officer and flight instructor of German ancestry. In his autobiography Take Me Home, Denver described his life as the eldest son of a family shaped by a stern father who could never show his love for his children. Denver's mother's family was Irish and German Catholic, and it was they who imbued Denver with a love of music. His maternal grandmother gave him his first guitar when he was seven.
Since Denver's father was in the military, the family moved often, making it hard for young John to make friends and fit in with people his own age. Constantly being the new kid was agony for the introverted youngster, and he grew up always feeling as if he should be somewhere else but never knowing where that "right" place was. Denver was happy living in Tucson, however his father was transferred to Montgomery, Alabama, then in the midst of the Montgomery boycotts. While living in Tucson, Denver was a member of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus for two years. Denver saw Alabama as a place of hatred and mistrust, and he wanted no part of it. The family later moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Denver graduated from Arlington Heights High School. Attending high school in Fort Worth was a distressing experience for the alienated Denver. In his third year of high school, he took his father's car and ran away to California to visit family friends and pursue a musical career. His father flew to California to retrieve him, and he finished high school.
Denver was reared as a Presbyterian, and converted to Lutheranism. He claimed that he also shared many beliefs with Zen Buddhists as well as certain Yoga spiritual masters. He also felt he had a connection with the indigenous people of North America. For most of his adult life he was New Age in belief, as is the primary belief system behind the foundation Windstar that he co-founded.
At the age of 12, Denver received a 1910 Gibson acoustic jazz guitar from his grandmother, learning to play well enough to perform at local clubs by the time he was in college. He adopted the surname "Denver" after the capital of his favorite state, when Randy Sparks suggested that "Deutschendorf" wouldn't fit comfortably on a marquee. He dropped out of the School of Engineering (Architecture) at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) in Lubbock, Texas, in 1964, and moved to Los Angeles, California. Denver sang in the smoky underground folk clubs in Los Angeles, and in 1965 joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, a folk group that had been renamed "The Mitchell Trio" prior to Chad Mitchell's departure and before Denver's arrival and then "Denver, Boise, and Johnson" (John Denver, David Boise and Michael Johnson).
In 1969, Denver abandoned the band life to pursue a solo career, and released his first album for RCA Records, Rhymes and Reasons. It was not a huge hit, but it contained "Leaving on a Jet Plane", which was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary two years prior when Mitchell Trio manager Milt Okun had brought the unrecorded Denver song to the high profile folk group. Soon after the John Denver version was released, the Peter, Paul and Mary version hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although RCA did not actively promote the album with a tour, Denver himself embarked on an impromptu supporting tour throughout the Midwest, stopping at towns and cities as the fashion took him, offering to play free concerts at local venues. When he was successful in convincing a school, college, American Legion Hall or local coffeehouse to let him play, he would spend a day or so postering the town, and could usually be counted to show up at the local radio station, guitar in hand, offering himself for an interview. With the foot in the door of having authored "Leaving on a Jet Plane", he was often successful in gaining some valuable promotional airtime, usually featuring one or two songs performed live. Some venues would let him play for the "door"; others restricted him to selling copies of the album at intermission and after the show. After several months of this constant low-key touring schedule however, he had sold enough albums to convince RCA to take a chance on extending his recording contract. He had also built a sizable and solid fan base, many of whom remained loyal throughout his career.
Denver recorded two more albums in 1970, Whose Garden Was This? and Take Me to Tomorrow, featuring songs he had composed while driving the roads of the American Midwest. Although these albums were not as successful as those that followed, they would all be certified gold by the RIAA, and would later be considered some of his best work.
His first wife, Ann Martell, was from Minnesota, and he immortalized her in one of his biggest hits - "Annie's Song" - written, he claimed, in only ten minutes while on a ski lift in 1974. The couple lived in Edina from 1968 to 1971, when they moved to California, although following the success of "Rocky Mountain High", Denver purchased an additional residence in Colorado, and in fact, owned one or more homes in Colorado, continuously, right up until his death.
His next album, Poems, Prayers and Promises (released in 1971) was a breakthrough for him in the U.S., thanks in part to the single "Take Me Home, Country Roads", which went to number two on the Billboard charts. (The first pressings of the track were distorted. Its success was in part due to the efforts of his new manager, future Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, who signed Denver in 1970. Weintraub insisted on a re-issue of the track and began a radio-airplay campaign that began in Denver, Colorado.) Denver's career flourished from then on, and he had a series of hits over the next four years. In 1972, Denver scored his first Top Ten album with Rocky Mountain High, with its title track reaching the Top Ten in 1973. Between 1974 and 1975 Denver experienced an impressive chart dominance, with a string of five #1 songs ("Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Annie's Song", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", "I'm Sorry" and "Calypso") and three #1 albums John Denver's Greatest Hits, Back Home Again and Windsong).
In the pre-MTV era of the 1970s, with his long blond hair, embroidered shirts emblazened with images commonly associated with the American West (created by designer & applique artist Anna Zapp), affable manner and "granny" glasses, Denver became one of the first truly telegenic pop stars. His manager, Jerry Weintraub, insisted on these appearances (including a series of half-hour shows in England, despite Denver's then-protestations that "I've had no success in Britain... I mean none.") Weintraub explained to Maureen Orth of Newsweek in December 1976, "I knew the critics would never go for John. I had to get him to the people." Among one of these first appearances was a spot filling in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. During the show, Denver uttered the phrase, "Far out!" at least twenty times, thus ensuring the exclamation would become a sort of catchphrase forever associated with his name. After appearing as a guest on many shows, Denver went on to host his own variety/music specials, including several world-televised concerts from Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver. His seasonal special, Rocky Mountain Christmas, was watched by over 60 million people, and was the highest rated show for the ABC network at that time. His live concert special, An Evening with John Denver, won the Emmy for Best Variety or Musical Special in the same year. When John Denver ended his business relationship due to Weintraub's focus on other projects, Weintraub threw John out of his office and called John a Nazi. John Denver would later write in his autobiography ".. I'd bend my principles to support something he wanted of me. And of course every time you bend your principles - whether because you don't want to worry about it, or because you're afraid to stand up for fear of what you might lose - you sell your soul to the devil".
Denver was also a guest star on The Muppet Show, the beginning of a life-long friendship between Denver and Jim Henson that spawned two television specials with The Muppets. He also tried his hand at acting, starring in the 1977 film Oh, God! opposite George Burns. Denver hosted the Grammy Awards five times in the 1970s and 1980s, and guest-hosted The Tonight Show multiple times.
In 1975, Denver was awarded the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award. At the ceremony, the outgoing Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich (who himself had a series of crossover hits) was to present the award to his successor. Instead of simply reading the winner's name, Rich set fire to the envelope with a lighter and announced in tones of disgust, "my good friend, John Denver!"
In 1977, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project with Werner Erhard and Robert W. Fuller. He served for many years, and supported the organization until his death. John was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the President's Commission on World Hunger, writing the song "I Want to Live" as its theme song. In 1979, Denver performed "Rhymes and Reasons" at the Music for UNICEF Concert. Royalties from the concert performances were donated to UNICEF.
Denver became outspoken in politics in the mid-seventies. In 1976, he campaigned for Jimmy Carter, who became a close friend and ally. Denver was a supporter of the Democratic Party, and a number of charitable causes for the environmental movement, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, and the African AIDS crisis. He founded the charitable Windstar Foundation in 1976 to promote sustainable living. His dismay at the Chernobyl disaster led to precedent-setting concerts in parts of communist Asia and Europe.
During the 1980s, he was a critic of the Reagan Administration's environmental and defense spending policies, advocated unilateral disarmament of the United States, and opposed free-market economics. His outrage at the conservative politics of the 1980s was famously expressed in his autobiographical folk rock ballad Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For). Denver was also critical of the Republican-dominated Congress and American Conservatism of the 1990s. He denounced the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a corrupt political machine that could buy off politicians, and in an open letter to the media he wrote that he opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Denver had battled to expand the refuge in the 1980s, and praised President Bill Clinton for his opposition to the proposed drilling. The letter, which he wrote in the midst of the 1996 Presidential election, was one of the last he would ever write.
Denver was also on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society for many years.
Later years and humanitarian work
In later years, Denver had a lower profile career, due in fact to his environmental activism and humanitarian efforts. He had a few more U.S. Top 30 hits as the 1970s ended, but nothing to match his earlier success. He began to focus more on humanitarian and sustainability causes, focusing extensively on conservation projects and helping to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. He made public expression of his acquaintances and friendships with ecological-design researchers such as Richard Buckminster Fuller and Amory Lovins, from whom he said he learned much. He also founded his own environmental group, the Windstar Foundation. Denver had a keen interest in solutions to world hunger. He visited Africa during the 1980s to witness first-hand the suffering caused by starvation and to work with African leaders towards solutions.
In 1983 and 1984 Denver hosted the annual Grammy Awards. In the 1983 finale, Denver was joined on-stage by folk music legend Joan Baez with whom he led an all-star version of "Blowing in the Wind" and "Let The Sunshine In", joined by such diverse musical icons as Jennifer Warnes, Donna Summer and Rick James. In 1985, Denver asked to participate in the singing of "We Are the World" but was turned down. According to Ken Kragen, (who helped to produce the song), the reason John Denver was turned down was that many people felt his image would hurt the credibility of the song. For Earth Day 1990, Denver was the on-camera narrator of a well received environmental TV program, "In Partnership With Earth," with then EPA Administrator William K. Reilly.
Denver testified on the topic of censorship during a Parents Music Resource Center hearing in 1985. Denver also toured Russia in 1985, meeting with Communist Party luminaries at every opportunity. His eleven Soviet Union concerts were the first by any American artist in more than 10 years, and marked a very important cultural exchange that culminated in an agreement to allow other western artists to perform there. He returned two years later to perform at a benefit concert for the victims of the Chernobyl accident. In October 1992, John undertook a multiple-city tour of People's Republic of China, shaking hands and meeting with Communist Party leaders in every city. He also released a greatest-hits CD, "Homegrown", to raise money for homeless charities. In 1994, he published his autobiography, Take Me Home. In 1996, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In early 1997, Denver filmed an episode for the Nature series, centering on the natural wonders that inspired many of his best-loved songs. The episode contains his last song, "Yellowstone, Coming Home", which he composed while rafting along the Colorado River with his son and young daughter.
The lyrics to "Rocky Mountain High", one of Colorado's official state songs, in Rio Grande Park near Denver's hometown of Aspen, Colorado.
Denver's first marriage was to Annie Martell of St. Peter, Minnesota. Annie was the subject of his much-beloved hit "Annie's Song". He and Annie adopted a son (Zachary) and daughter (Anna Kate). Zachary was the subject of "A Baby Just Like You", which included the line Merry Christmas little Zachary, a song he wrote for Frank Sinatra who also appeared on the Muppet Christmas Special. After his divorce from Annie in 1982, he later married Australian actress Cassandra Delaney in 1988. They had a daughter, Jesse Belle, after Denver had medical treatment for his infertility. They separated in 1991 and their divorce became final in 1993. In the years after his second divorce, Denver and Annie Martell began to reconcile their friendship. Before his death a rumor in the tabloid The National Enquirer suggested reconciliation of their marriage, but no evidence has arisen supporting this claim.
Denver had two incidents involving driving under the influence of alcohol. In 1993 he pleaded guilty to "driving while impaired", and a 1994 incident ended with a hung jury in 1997 when his defense argued that a thyroid condition rendered the alcohol tests unreliable.
A Long-EZ two seat canard plane similar to Denver's.
John Denver's son Zachary lives in Durango, Colorado with his wife Jennifer, his daughter Anna Kate runs a bed-and-breakfast in New Zealand with her husband Jamie, Jesse lives in New South Wales/Australia with her mother.
On October 12, 1997, Denver was killed when the Long-EZ aircraft he was piloting crashed just off the coast of California at Pacific Grove, shortly after taking off from the Monterey Peninsula Airport.
The Long-EZ is a two-seat experimental aircraft, designed in the 1970s by Burt Rutan. Denver's particular plane, N555JD, bought used, had been changed from Rutan's original published plans: the fuel tank selector valve had been moved from a location just aft of the nose gear wheel housing and between the pilot's legs to the bulkhead behind and to the left of the pilot's (front) seat. This is of possible significance because it is believed Denver may have lost control of the aircraft during attempts to operate the fuel selector valve after running out of fuel in one tank. Witnesses stated that the plane made a sudden pitch-down plunge into the water, leading to speculation that, in reaching around to the rear, Denver bumped or kicked the side-stick control. The official investigation decided that he had likely inadvertently pushed the right rudder pedal trying to gain leverage to turn in his seat to reach the fuel handle.
A pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience, Denver had single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider, and instrument ratings. He also held a type rating in a Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before the accident. The NTSB cited Denver's unfamiliarity with the aircraft and his failure to have the aircraft refueled as causal factors in the accident. Denver was the sole occupant of the aircraft. Before the accident, the FAA had learned of his failure to abstain entirely from alcohol subsequent to drunk driving arrests, and since his medical certification was conditional on this, a determination was made that due to his drinking problem, he was not qualified for any class of medical certification at the time. At least a third-class medical certification was required to exercise the privileges of his pilot certificate. There was no trace of alcohol or any other drug in Denver's body at autopsy, however. As the wreck badly disfigured Denver's body, dental records were needed to confirm that the fallen pilot of the Long-EZ was indeed the singer.
Upon announcement of Denver's death, Colorado governor Roy Romer ordered all state flags to be lowered to half staff in his honor. Denver was cremated with the 1910 Gibson guitar, given to him by his grandmother, that had inspired much of his career. Funeral services were held at Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado, on October 17, 1997, being officiated by Pastor Les Felker, a retired Air Force chaplain. Later, Denver's ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains. Further tributes were made at the following Grammys and Country Music Association Awards. Nearly 10 years following his death (September 23, 2007), his brother Ron witnessed the dedication of a plaque placed near the crash site in Pacific Grove, CA, commemorating the singer.
Denver's final album, All Aboard! consisted of old fashioned swing, big band, folk, bluegrass and gospel styles of music woven into a theme of railroad songs. All Aboard! won a posthumous Best Musical Album For Children Grammy.
In 2000, CBS presented the television movie Take Me Home: The John Denver Story loosely based on his memoirs, starring Chad Lowe. Denver's brother, Ron Deutschendorf, voiced the feelings of many of the singer's fans when he wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times criticizing the film's many inaccuracies: multiple chronological errors, exaggerated difficulties in his relationship with his father and a completely superficial treatment of Denver's commitment to his various causes. As the New York Post observed, "An overachiever like John Denver couldn't have been this boring." In a letter addressed to "The World Family of John Denver", Ron Deutschendorf has since expressed the desire to make a feature film more accurately portraying his elder brother's life.
Denver's music remains extremely popular around the world. Previously unreleased and unnoticed recordings are now sought-after collectibles in pop, folk and country genres. Also in demand are copies of Denver's many television appearances, especially his one-hour specials from the 1970s and his six-part series for Britain's BBC, The John Denver Show. Despite strong interest in these programs, no sign of "official" release is evident for the vast majority of this material. An anthology musical featuring John Denver's music, Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday, premiered at the Rubicon Theatre Company in November 2006.
On March 12, 2007, Colorado's Senate passed a resolution to make Denver's trademark 1972 hit, "Rocky Mountain High" one of the state's two official state songs, sharing duties with its predecessor, "Where the Columbines Grow." The resolution passed 50-11 in the House, defeating an objection by Rep. Debbie Stafford (R-Aurora) that the song reflected drug use, most specifically the line, "Friends around the campfire and everybody's high." Sen. Bob Hagedorn, the Aurora Democrat who sponsored the proposal, defended the song as nothing to do with drugs, but everything to do with sharing with friends the euphoria of experiencing the beauty of Colorado's mountain vistas. Nancy Todd (D-Aurora) said that "John Denver to me is an icon of what Colorado is." (Denver Post, 3/13/2007). Similar proposals have also been made to the West Virginia House of Delegates to make "Take Me Home Country Roads" the official song of that particular state, so far without success.
On September 24, 2007, the California Friends of John Denver and The Windstar Foundation unveiled a bronze plaque near the spot where his plane went down near Pacific Grove. The site had been marked by a driftwood log carved (by Jeffrey Pine of Colorado) with the singer's name, but fears that the memorial could be washed out to sea sparked the campaign for a more permanent memorial. Initially the Pacific Grove Council denied permission for the memorial, fearing the place would attract ghoulish curiosity from extreme fans. Permission was finally granted in 1999, but the project was put on hold at the request of the singer's family. Eventually over 100 friends and family attended the dedication of the plaque, which features a bas-relief of the singer's face and lines from his song "Windsong": "So welcome the wind and the wisdom she offers. Follow her summons when she calls again."
To mark the 10th anniversary of Denver's death, his family released a set of previously unreleased recordings of Denver's 1985 concert performances in the Soviet Union. This two CD set, John Denver - Live in the USSR, was produced by Denver's friend Roger Nichols and released by AAO Music. These digital recordings were made during 11 concerts, and then rediscovered in 2002. Included in this set is a previously unpublished rendition of "Annie's Song" in Russian. The collection was released November 6, 2007.
On October 13, 2009, a DVD box set of previously unreleased concerts recorded throughout Denver's career will be released by Eagle Rock Entertainment. "Around the World Live" is a 5-disc DVD set featuring three complete live performances with full band from Australia in 1977, Japan in 1981 and England in 1986. These are complemented by a solo acoustic performance from Japan in 1984 and performances at Farm Aid from 1985, 1987 & 1990. The final disc has two hour long documentaries made by John Denver.
Main article: The John Denver Band
Denver began his recording career with a group that had started as the Chad Mitchell Trio; his distinctive voice can be heard where he sings solo on Violets of Dawn, among other songs. He recorded three albums with the Mitchell Trio, replacing Chad Mitchell himself as high tenor. The group Denver, Boise and Johnson, which had evolved from the Mitchell Trio, released a single before he moved on to a solo career.
Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, credited as co-writers of Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads", were close friends of Denver and his family, appearing as singers and songwriters on many of Denver's albums until they formed the Starland Vocal Band in 1976. The band's albums were released on Denver's Windsong Records (later known as Windstar Records) label. Denver's solo recording contract resulted in part from the recording by Peter, Paul and Mary of his song "Leaving on a Jet Plane", which became the sole number 1 hit single for the group. Denver recorded songs by Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, John Prine, David Mallett, and many others in the folk scene. His record company, Windstar, is still an active record label today.
Olivia Newton-John, an Australian singer whose across-the-board appeal to pop, MOR, and country audiences in the mid-1970s was similar to Denver's, lent her distinctive backup vocals to Denver's 1975 single "Fly Away"; she performed the song with Denver on his 1975 Rocky Mountain Christmas special. She also covered his "Take Me Home, Country Roads", and had a hit in the United Kingdom (#15 in 1973) and Japan (#6 in a belated 1976 release) with it. In 1976 John Denver appeared as a guest star, along with Olivia Newton-John who made a cameo appearance, on The Carpenters Very First Special, a one hour TV special broadcast on the ABC television network. A highlight of the program was John singing a duet with Karen Carpenter of a medley of "Through the Rye" and "Good Vibrations", although the medley was never released commercially as a single or on an album.
September 2008 saw the premiere of the musical Whisper the Wind in New Zealand, a tribute presentation covering highlights of Denver's life and career, with the younger Denver played by 21-year-old Dunedin musician Bevan Gardiner, whose vocal impersonation of the late singer was considered so accurate Denver's business manager Harold Thau could not tell them apart.
Awards and recognition
Academy of Country Music
1974 Album of the Year for "Back Home Again"
American Music Awards
1975 Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist
1976 Favorite Country Album for "Back Home Again"
1976 Favorite Country Male Artist
Country Music Association
1975 Entertainer of the Year
1975 Song of the Year for "Back Home Again"
1975 Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special for "An Evening With John Denver"
1997 Best Musical Album For Children for "All Aboard!"
1998 Grammy Hall of Fame Award for "Take Me Home, Country Roads"
Songwriters Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1996
Poet Laureate of Colorado, 1977
People's Choice Award, 1977
Ten Outstanding Young Men of America, 1979
Carl Sandburg???s People???s Poet Award, 1982
NASA Public Service Medal, 1985
Albert Schweitzer Music Award, 1993
"Rocky Mountain High" declared state song of Colorado, 2007