When it comes to folk music, John Denver might be one of the most iconic names one could ever think of. His name alone rings a bell in almost every household and radio station. In fact, he was not just a pure folk singer. For over 35 years in the music industry, Denver crossed over different genres of music. He also took his musical career into Country, pop, Western, and even rock (folk and soft) music. As a result, fans across the world and the world loved him even more.
With his career that spanned for over three decades, Denver produced some of the most iconic songs ever heard on the radio. His soft yet poignant voice won the hearts of many. And, his songs are a poem to the soul.
It has already been 21 years since his passing, but more importantly, his legacy is his voice that will forever exist. Hence, with much respect and dedication, we relive John Denver’s sound and legacy, as well as his roots in folk and country music.
The Birth of a Legend
Born on December 31, 1943, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., more popularly known as John Denver, grew up in Roswell, New Mexico. He was the eldest son of Captain Henry John “Dutch” Deutschendorf and Erma Louise Swope. His father was a United States Army Air Force pilot stationed at Roswell AAF. Growing up, Denver experienced a well-disciplined childhood as his father was a member of the military where time is as precious as gold. In fact, this was revealed in Denver’s autobiography, Take Me Home. He described his life as the eldest son of a family shaped by a stern father who could not show his love for his children.
Throughout his early life, Denver had difficulty making friends with other children, especially his age. His father was in the military, and his family moved from time to time. As a result, he grew up to be an introvert, always feeling that he should be somewhere else.
During his stay in Arizona, while his family was stationed at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Denver joined the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus for two years. Starting a new life and finding new friends, he began to appreciate living in Tucson. However, his father was reassigned and transferred to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama. The time when he can say that he finally found himself was actually the time they have to flee again. Tired and disappointed, Denver showed no trace of dismay as he had to abide by his father.
Later, the family moved again to Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas where Denver graduated from Arlington Heights High School. While in Fort Worth, he was not as happy as he was way back in Arizona. In fact, it was a distressing experience for him that is why, when he was in his third year of high school, he drove his father’s car all the way to California just to visit family friends. More importantly, to start his career in music. However, upon hearing Denver’s trip, his father immediately flew to California just to retrieve him. Reluctantly, Denver returned and finished his schooling.
At the age of 11, his grandmother gave him an acoustic guitar. By the time he was in college, he had learned to play well leading him to a series of performances at local clubs. He then adopted the surname “Denver” after the capital of his favorite state, Colorado. Also, his decision to change his name was because of Randy Sparks’ (founder of The New Christy Minstrels) suggestion. Sparks suggested that the name “Deutschendorf” would not fit comfortably on a marquee.
While studying Architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Denver sang in a folk music group named “The Alpine Trio.” Also, he became a member of the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. Unfortunately, in 1963, Denver dropped out of the Texas Tech School of Engineering. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he performed in folk clubs.
The Beginning of His Music and Career
In 1965, Denver became a part of the Mitchell Trio, replacing founder Chad Mitchell. After a series of personnel changes, the trio later became known as “Denver, Boise, and Johnson.” (Named after John Denver, David Boise, and Michael Johnson.)
Four years later, Denver totally left the group to pursue a career as a solo artist. For the first time, he released his first album for RCA Records called Rhymes & Reasons. On the album, he included in the demo of a song he had written. Initially called “Babe, I Hate to Go,” the song was later renamed “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
Producing for Denver was Milt Okun, who also produced records for the Mitchell Trio and the folk group, Peter, Paul, and Mary. Before it was released by Denver, the unreleased “Jet Plane” song was offered to Peter, Paul, and Mary by Okun. Interestingly, their version made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand, Denver’s composition notched the number two spot in the U.K. in 1970. Meanwhile, it went to number one on the U.S. Cash Box chart in 1969.
Having known to be the author of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” he often got the thumbs up of prominent people who he calls whenever he needed promotional airtime and interviews. He would then tour in a low-key schedule that would go for several months. With this, he had sold enough albums making RCA extend his recording contract. In addition, he had already established a solid fan base, many of whom stayed loyal throughout his career.
In 1970, Denver recorded two albums, Take Me to Tomorrow and Whose Garden Was This. Furthermore, he included a mix of songs he had written and also cover versions of other artists’ songs.
Career Peak: Road to Success
Released in 1971, Poems, Prayers, and Promises was Denver’s breakthrough album in the U.S. The most significant part of his success was all because of his single, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Despite the first pressings of the track being distorted, the song still managed to clinch the second spot on the Billboard charts. Also, apart from the said single, Denver’s new manager, Jerry Weintraub, took part in making the success happen through his efforts. Prior to the album production, Weintraub signed Denver in 1970.
In one of his interviews, Denver shared that it was Weintraub who insisted of re-issuing the track and started a radio-airplay campaign. It began in Denver, Colorado. At this point, Denver’s career skyrocketed, opening more opportunities for the folk singer.
In 1972, he notched his first Top Ten album with Rocky Mountain High. The following year, the album’s title track reached the Top Ten. For the next two years, Denver captivated more audience, and his dominance on the charts was unstoppable. Interestingly, he had a string of four number one songs by 1975. These are “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “I’m Sorry.” Also, he had three number one album, namely, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Back Home Again, and Windsong.
Throughout the ‘70s, Denver channeled a different look from the other artists. His look was more of a long blond hair with matching “granny” glasses. Additionally, his shirts were embroidered with emblazoned images depicting the American West. The brainchild of all of these was a renowned designer and applique artist Anna Zapp.
On the other hand, his manager, Weintraub, pushed Denver to engage on a number of television appearances. Despite disagreeing with the idea of having a show in the United Kingdom, Denver continued to do a series of half-hour shows in the U.K. As a matter of fact; he was even quoted saying:
“I’ve had no success in Britain… I mean none!”
In an interview with Newsweek in 1976, Weintraub said:
“I knew critics would never go for John. I had to get him to the people.”
After a series of guesting on several shows, Denver finally got to host his variety show. To note, his seasonal special, Rocky Mountain Christmas, was actually viewed by more than 60 million people around the world. Also, it became the highest-rated show for the ABC network during that time.
Unfortunately, Denver decided to end his business relationship Weintraub because of the latter’s focus on other projects. In response, Weintraub threw him out of his office accusing Denver of Nazism.
As a part of Denver’s autobiography which was transcribed by Arthur Tobier, Denver said:
“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.”
For more than thirty years or his career, Denver released a pile of songs that are worth performing and listening to. However, it is quite impossible to list them all here. Hence, we have only selected ten from his best songs that have marked his career.
1. “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
2. “Annie’s Song”
3. “Rocky Mountain High”
4. “Sunshine on My Shoulders”
5. “Leaving on a Jet Plane”
6. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”
8. “Back Home Again“
9. “Some Days Are Diamonds”
10. “I’m Sorry”
Denver as an Actor, Host, and Advocate
Not only did Denver star on musical shows, but also, he became a guest star on The Muppet Show. It began the lifelong friendship between Denver and Jim Henson. At some point in his life, Denver also tried acting. Hence, he appeared in “The Colorado Cattle Caper” episode of the McCloud television movie in 1974. On the other hand, he starred in the 1977 film, Oh, God!, opposite George Burns.
Aside from hosting his show, Denver was also invited to host award shows. Interestingly, he got to host the Grammy Awards five times throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Moreover, he guest-hosted The Tonight Show many times.
In 1975, Denver won the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year award, which was presented by Charlie Rich, the outgoing awardee. As a protest of Denver’s selection, Rich set fire to the envelope that contains the name of Denver. Many reacted, and the event went on to become a controversy for the succeeding years. However, country music singer Kathy Mattea defended Denver’s music. She told Entertainment Weekly:
“A lot of people write him off as lightweight, 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.”
Two years after his controversial win at the CMA, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project with Werner Erhard and Robert W. Fuller. With his music and passion, he served and supported the organization until his death.
Furthermore, President Jimmy Carter appointed Denver to serve on the President’s Commission on World Hunger. He even wrote “I Want to Live” as its theme song. In 1979, he performed “Rhymes & Reasons” at the Music for UNICEF Concert. Everything that he earned from the concert was all donated to UNICEF.
His Unfortunate Death & Posthumous Recognition
In the mid-1970s, his father taught him to fly. It led to his reconciliation with his father. In fact, the father and son even co-hosted an award-winning television special in 1980. The show was called The Higher We Fly: The History of Flight.
However, on October 12, 1997, news went abuzz as Denver was killed when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane crashed into Monterey Bay in California. While making a series of touch-and-go landings, the plane in which Denver was the only occupant suddenly crashed.
Denver’s death rocked the music industry around the world. It saddened everyone including Colorado Governor Roy Romer who ordered all state flags be lowered to half-staff in Denver’s honor. On October 17, 1997, Denver’s remains were cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains. Following this, tributes were held at the Grammys and CMAs.
In honor of the late singer, CBS presented the movie Take Me Home: The John Denver Story. It was loosely based on his memoirs and starred actor Chad Lowe as John Denver. More tributes and honorary events held in commemoration of the talented singer whose dreams were as high as the Rocky Mountains.
For every show that he performed, John Denver gave his all. His outstanding act and superb talent never disappointed fans and fellow artists alike. Though he started small, it was during these times when he was very vulnerable that he had clung into his passion and roots – music.
John Denver may have long been gone. He may have departed and left us. But, while his song is still played, his voice is still heard, and his talent is still watched, he will forever be alive within our hearts. Gone but never forgotten, he will always be that true folk and country artist that has flown high and achieved his dream! LONG LIVE, JOHN!