Denver, John (Contemporary Musicians)
An internationally-loved singer and songwriter, John Denver was also a some-time actor and an active humanitarian. In 1976, a Newsweek writer did not hesitate to describe him as "the most popular pop singer in America." His music career spanned nearly three decades and he touched the hearts of millions with his wholesome uplifting lyrics and country-style folk songs that celebrate the natural beauty of the environment and the joy of simply being alive. At the age 53, Denver's life and career came to an end when his experimental Long-EZ model plane suddenly nose dived into the Pacific Ocean at Monterey Bay, California, killing him instantly in the crash.
Throughout his career, Denver wrote and sang songs exuding the joy that he felt for life, love, and nature. His clear tenor vocals and folksy-country pop style brimmed with sincerity and optimism. A poet at heart, he was influenced by folk greats Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. He took much inspiration for his music from his love of the outdoors. He particularly loved the mountains and enjoyed camping, hiking, backpacking, and fishing. He was also an avid golfer, photographer, pilot, and was known to be a daredevil. Denver told Rick Overall of the Ottawa Sun, "When I was growing up, my first and best friend was the outdoors and when I began to express myself, I used images from nature." This love coupled with his desire to serve humanity would become the inspiration for much of Denver's environmental conservation and humanitarian work, in which his music found many outlets.
Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico. He moved frequently while growing up with his parents, U.S. Air Force Colonel and pilot Henry John and Erma Deutschendorf, and younger brother Ronald. He lived in Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and Japan. When he was eight years old, one of his grandmothers gave him a vintage Gibson guitar. Some of his fondest memories from childhood were times spent on his other grandmother's farm in Corn, Oklahoma. There he would listen to country music, play with the animals, and sleep under the stars.
Heart Longs for Mountains
A member of a rock band in high school, Denver continued performing while attending Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas during the early 1960s. However, after more than two years studying architecture, the pull of music prevailed. He left school in 1964, adopted the stage name of John Denver and headed to Los Angeles, California. He told Newsweek he chose "Denver" because "my heart longed to live in the mountains." In Los Angeles, he played the acoustic guitar, sang folk songs, and performed at a club called Ledbetter's. He also became a member of the Back Porch Majority. Denver's first big break was in New York City, when he replaced Chad Mitchell of the Chad Mitchell Trio. He sang with the group, played guitar and banjo, and recorded pop and folk songs with them from 1965-68. He met his first wife, Ann Martell, while performing with the trio at her college; the couple were married in 1967.
In 1969, after the song Denver wrote for Peter, Paul, and Mary, "Leaving On A Jet Plane, " became a number one hit, he signed with RCA Records. Denver would go on to release many singles and albums which would become worldwide hits. The first of his million-selling singles was "Take Me Home, Country Roads," written with Bill and Taffy Danoff in 1971. This triumph was followed by a string of hits, including "Rocky Mountain High," "Annie's Song," "Thank God I'm A Country Boy, " "Sunshine On My Shoulders," and many more. His 1973 album, John Denver's Greatest Hits, remains one of the biggest selling albums in the history of RCA Records, surviving on Billboard's Top 200 for over three years, with sales topping 10 million copies.
In 1975, Denver founded his own label, Windsong Records, and released Starland's Vocal Band's song, "Afternoon Delight," which became a number one single. By the 1990s he had 14 gold and eight platinum albums to his credit.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Denver was a popular and frequent television performer. He performed with various artists, including Itzhak Perlman, Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Julie Andrews, and the Muppets. He won many music awards, and garnered an Emmy Award in 1976 for his television special, Rocky Mountain Christmas.
In 1977 he appeared in the film Oh, God!, also starring George Burns, and later he acted in the 1993 film Walking Thunder. When such incredible popular success did not translate into critical acceptance, Denver remained cheerful. He told Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone, "I don't mind if [critics] call me the Mickey Mouse of rock."
Music Promotes Goodwill Causes
During the 1980s the popularity of Denver's music waned in the United States, with the rise of new wave music and disco; but he continued touring internationally. He also donated his time to various charitable and political causes. In 1984, he toured the Soviet Union and recorded a duet with Russian pop singer Alexandre Gradsky, called "Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?)." Also that year, he wrote and performed a song for the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, "The Gold And Beyond."
In 1987 he received the Presidential World Without Hunger Award from Ronald Reagan, his documentary about endangered species, Rocky Mountain Reunion, won six awards, and he performed a benefit concert for the survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. In 1992 Denver became the first western artist to tour China.
In 1993, Denver became the first nonclassical musician to receive the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for his humanitarian efforts. Nearly two decades earlier, the musician had expressed his views on social activism in the Saturday Evening Post: "People on an individual basis will make changesot protesters or lobbyists. People who do what they really know to be right or true. Little things. In traffic, in grocery stores, you let somebody else in front of you. That's peace." And yet, he proceeded to make so many contributions that could not be called "little."
He co-founded the Windstar Foundation in 1975 and, later, the Hunger Project. He was a member of a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) delegation that toured drought-suffering African nations. He was a board member of the National Space Institute and the Cousteau Society, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He performed a live concert in 1995 celebrating the 100th anniversary of WCS. The concert was recorded and later released on a double CD and on video. One of his favorite charities was a camp for deaf children in Aspen, Colorado.
Final Album and "Take Me Home"
His final album of all original material, Different Directions, was released in 1991 under his Windstar label. One of his later albums, a compilation of tunes following a theme of trains and railroads was called All Aboard. Reviewer and fan Doug Speedie of Jam! Showbize felt it was "John Denver at his best." Another reviewer for Publishers Weekly rated the album an "A" and noted Denver's range of musical styles including swing, blue-grass, mournful a capella, and even yodeling. However, his 1994 autobiography, Take Me Home, was given low marks by a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who called it "self-indulgent."
The last five or six years of Denver's personal life had been rocky. In 1991 he and his second wife, Cassandra Delaney, divorced. In 1993 and 1994 he was arrested on drunk driving charges. Through these difficulties, friends and family said Denver never lost his enthusiasm for life. Longtime producer and friend Milt Okun claimed that Denver had cleaned up his behavior and that during a phone call the Friday preceding his death, Denver had talked excitedly about plans he had for the future, including picking up his new experimental plane. Denver flew his plane in spite of a 1996 suspension of his aviation license, reportedly connected to his drunk driving charges. However, alcohol was not suspected to be involved in his crash, according to Monterey County Sheriff, Norman Hicks.
Memorial services followed Denver's private funeral. On October 17,1997, some 2,000 people mourned his death at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado. A second service, at the Aspen Music Tent Amphitheater the next day, attracted about 1,500 people. During a tribute, Paul Winter played "Icarus," a song based on the mythological story about a boy who flew too close to the sun and perished. Denver's ashes were to be scattered over the Rockies. He is survived by three children.
(With the Mitchell Trio) The Mitchell Trio: That's the Way It's Gonna Be, Mercury, 1965.
Rhymes and Reasons, RCA, 1969.
Take Me To Tomorrow, RCA, 1970.
Whose Garden Was This, RCA, 1970.
Poems, Prayers, and Promises, RCA, 1971.
Aerie, RCA, 1972.
Farewell Andromeda, RCA, 1973.
John Denver's Greatest Hits (includes "Take Me Home Country Road,""Rocky Mountain High,""Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Leaving On A Jet Plane"), RCA, 1973, reissued, 1988.
Back Home Again (includes "Annie's Song" and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"), RCA, 1974.
Rocky Mountain Christmas, RCA, 1975.
An Evening With John Denver, RCA, 1975.
Windsong, RCA, 1975.
Live in London, RCA, 1976.
Spirit, RCA, 1976.
I Want To Live, RCA, 1977.
The Best of John Denver, Volume 2, RCA, 1977.
John Denver, RCA, 1979.
A Christmas Together With the Muppets, RCA, 1979.
Autograph, RCA, 1980.
Some Days Are Diamonds, RCA, 1981.
Perhaps Love, CBS, 1981.
Seasons of the Heart, RCA, 1982.
Its About Time, RCA, 1983.
Collection, Telstar, 1984.
Dreamland Express, RCA, 1985.
One World (includes "Let Us Begin [What Are We Making Weapons For?]"), RCA, 1986.
Different Directions, Windstar, 1991.
Wildlife Concert, Sony Legacy, 1995.
The Rocky Mountain Collection, RCA, 1996.
All Aboard, Columbia/Sony, 1997.
The Best of John Denver Live, Legacy, 1997.
(With Arthur Tobier) Take Me Home: An Autobiography, Harmony, 1994.
Rees, Dafydd and LukeCrampton, editors, Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Dorling Kindersly, 1996.
Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Detroit News, October 18, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, October 24, 1997.
Jam! Showbiz, October 15, 1997.
Newsweek, December 20, 1976, pp. 60-62, 65.
New York Times, October 14, 1997, p. B11.
Ottawa Sun, October 14, 1997.
People, November 3, 1997, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, October 17, 1994, p. 69; September 8, 1997, p. 33.
Rolling Stone, November 27, 1997, p. 24.
Saturday Evening Post, January 1974, p. 57-58, 85.
U.S. News & World Report, October 27, 1997, p. 18.
USA Today, October 14, 1997. p. 1-2D.
Additional information was provided by Sony Music.