John Denver (December 31, 1943 – October 12, 1997), born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., was an American Country Music/folk singer-songwriter and folk rock musician. The most popular country artist of the 1970s, and, indeed, one of the greatest in history, he recorded and released some 300 songs, about half composed by himself. 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 a Christian in his early life, reared Presbyterian, and converted to Lutheranism, but he often said he shared many beliefs with Zen Buddhists and certain Yoga spiritual masters. He also felt he had a connection with the indigenous people of North America. In his memoirs, Denver said that as a child he had had some troubles at home, mostly with his father.
At the age of 12, John 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" ("Germanvillage") wouldn't fit comfortably on a marquee. He dropped out of the School of Engineering (Architecture) at 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 the eponymous lead singer'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 had become a number one hit for 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.
Although RCA did not actively promote the album with a tour, John 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. If he were 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 quite 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; more importantly however, he had 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", John felt it incumbent upon himself to purchase an additional residence in Colorado, and in fact, he owned one or more homes in Colorado, continuously, right up until his death.
Key to Denver's success were his many appearances on television. In the pre-MTV era of the 1970s, with his long blond hair, embroidered shirts commonly associated with the American West, 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.
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 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year. 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 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!" Some considered it a statement against country pop and the Music Row-controlled Nashville Sound, and many condemned Rich's action as inappropriate and rude.
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.
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, in an open letter he wrote to the media opposing 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.
Despite his many differences with Republican leaders and presidents, Denver was a sought-after guest at state dinners hosted by Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. His "all-American" image and gentle lyrics of peace and harmony made him a popular entertainer. In 1972, at a Washington, D.C. concert, Nixon and then-Premier of the People's Republic of China Zhou Enlai were members of the audience. After the concert, which included Denver's infamous parodies "The Ballad of Richard Nixon" and "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew", the Premier purchased 500 cassette tapes of the country folk ballad "Take Me Home, Country Roads".
John Denver was a graduate of Werner Erhard's Erhard Seminars Training and also wrote and dedicated the song "Looking for Space" to E.S.T.. This song came from his 1975 album Windsong. It became the theme song for the training organization.
Denver supported space activism and was once slated to go into space. He was on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society for many years.
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, John Denver offered to sing on the recording of "We are the World", but was turned down. Also in 1985, Denver was a guest star in the "Miss Universe" Pageant" where he met and fell in love with Miss El Salvador, Julia Mora, with whom he had an short affair while she was in Florida but which ended when she went back to her hometown.
Denver testified alongside Frank Zappa and Dee Snider 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.
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", a song he wrote for Frank Sinatra who also appeared on the Muppet Christmas Special. He was also the eponymous subject of "Merry Christmas, Little Zachary". After his divorce from Annie in 1982, he later married Australian actress and singer Cassandra Delaney in 1988. They had a daughter named Jesse Belle, after Denver had had medical treatment for his infertility. They divorced 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.
While his career as a musical icon slowed down and his humanitarian work picked up its pace, 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.
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 multiengine, instrument, and Learjet type ratings. 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 prior 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.
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.
Denver's music remains very 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 of 2006.
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 is releasing 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 release date is scheduled for November 6, 2007.
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.
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.
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