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John Denver

John Denver in 1990
Background information
Birth name Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.
Born December 31, 1943(1943-12-31)
Roswell, New Mexico, U.S.
Died October 12, 1997 (aged 53)
Pacific Grove, California, U.S.
Genres Folk, pop, country
Occupations Singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, record producer, actor, writer, poet, activist
Instruments Vocals, guitar, keyboards, fiddle
Years active 1962–1997
Labels RCA, BMG, Windstar, Sony Wonder
Associated acts The John Denver Band, The Back Porch Majority, New Christy Minstrels, Chad Mitchell Trio, The Muppets, Olivia Newton-John, Placido Domingo, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash

John Denver (December 31, 1943 – October 12, 1997), born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., was an American singer-songwriter, actor, activist, and poet. One of the most popular acoustic artists of the 1970s in terms of record sales,[1] Denver recorded and released 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", "Take Me Home, Country Roads", "Rocky Mountain High", "Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", "Annie's Song" and "Calypso" attained worldwide popularity. Denver has been referred to as "The Poet for the Planet", "Mother Nature's Son", and "A Song's Best Friend".


Early years

Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. was born in Roswell, New Mexico to Erma Louise Swope and Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr.,[2] 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.

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. While living in Tucson, Denver was a member of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus for two years. Denver was happy living in Tucson, however his father was transferred to Montgomery, Alabama, then in the midst of the Montgomery boycotts. 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.[3]

Denver was reared as a Presbyterian and converted to Lutheranism. 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.[citation needed] For most of his adult life he was New Age in belief. The primary belief system behind the foundation Windstar that he co-founded with Tom Crum promotes a holistic approach to addressing environmental concerns. [4]

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, Colorado, when Randy Sparks suggested that "Deutschendorf" wouldn't fit comfortably on a marquee.[citation needed] 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).

Solo career

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. [5]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Career peak

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 despite the first pressings of the track being 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. [6] Between 1974 and 1975 Denver experienced an impressive chart dominance, with a string of four #1 songs ("Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Annie's Song", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", and "I'm Sorry") and three #1 albums John Denver's Greatest Hits, Back Home Again and Windsong).[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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."[7]) 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.[citation needed] 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 1974–1975 Emmy for Outstanding Special, Comedy-Variety or Music [8] When John Denver ended his business relationship due to Weintraub's focus on other projects, Weintraub threw Denver out of his office and called Denver a Nazi. 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". [9]

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.[citation needed]

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!"[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Political activism

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.[citation needed]

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 ever wrote.[citation needed]

Denver was also on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society for many years.[citation needed]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

In the summer of 1997, Denver recorded a children's train album for Sony Wonder entitled All Aboard! produced by long-time friend Roger Nichols. The album consisted of old fashioned swing, big band, folk, bluegrass and gospel styles of music woven into a theme of railroad songs. This album won a posthumous Best Musical Album For Children Grammy for Denver, his only Grammy.

Personal life

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 at the Christ Chapel located at Gustavus Adolphus College. Annie was the subject of his hit "Annie's Song", written in only ten minutes while on a ski lift in 1974. The couple lived in Edina, Minnesota from 1968 to 1971, when they moved to California. Following the success of "Rocky Mountain High", Denver purchased an additional residence in Colorado and owned one or more homes in Colorado continuously until his death.[13]. He and Annie adopted a son, Zachary, and daughter, Anna Kate. Zachary was the subject of "A Baby Just Like You", a song that included the line "Merry Christmas little Zachary" and which he wrote for Frank Sinatra, who also appeared on the Muppet Christmas Special. Denver and Martell divorced in 1982.

He later married Australian actress Cassandra Delaney in 1988. They had a daughter, Jesse Belle, after Denver had medical treatment for infertility. They separated in 1991 and divorced in 1993.

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.[14]

A Long-EZ two seat canard plane similar to Denver's.


On October 12, 1997, Denver was killed when his Experimental Long-EZ plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove, California.[15]

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.[16] 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. However, there was no trace of alcohol or any other drug in Denver's body at autopsy.[17] As the wreck badly disfigured Denver's body, making identification by dental records impossible,[18] records of his fingerprints taken from his arrests for intoxicated driving were used to confirm that the fallen pilot was indeed the singer.[19][20][21]

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.

Posthumous recognition

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."[22] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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."[23] 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."[24] 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."[citation needed]

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.[11]

On October 13, 2009, a DVD box set of previously unreleased concerts recorded throughout Denver's career was 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 and 1990. The final disc has two hour long documentaries made by Denver.

Related artists

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[25]

Awards and recognition

Academy of Country Music

American Music Awards

Country Music Association

Emmy Awards

  • 1975 Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special for "An Evening With John Denver"

Grammy Awards

Songwriters Hall of Fame

Other recognition



Selected writings

  • Alfie the Christmas Tree (1990) ISBN 0-945051-25-5
  • Take Me Home: An Autobiography (1994) ISBN 0-517-59537-0
  • Poems, Prayers and Promises: The Art and Soul of John Denver (2004) ISBN 1-57560-617-8

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ WARGS.COM : Ancestry of John Denver compiled by William Addams Reitwiesner.
  3. ^ FindArticles biodata
  4. ^
  5. ^ Ruhlman, William (April 12, 1996). "Beginnings". Goldmine Magazine. Retrieved January 24, 2010. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Rocky Mountain Wonderboy, James M. Martin, Pinnacle Books 1977.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Take Me Home - An Autobiography, John Denver and Arthur Tobier, Harmony Books 1994.
  10. ^ Harry Chapin website
  11. ^ a b WSTAR.COM: Windstar Foundation announcement
  12. ^ PBS Nature Website, "John Denver - Let this be a voice"
  13. ^ John Denver: The Baby Boomer's Poet Laureate Of Song.
  14. ^ "Drunken Driving Trial Ends in Hung Jury" CNN, July 13, 1997
  15. ^ Closeup: The John Denver Crash [1]
  16. ^ "". Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  17. ^ Natl Tranps. Safety Board: Long-EZ, N555JD, Flight History and Accident Report, ID= LAX98FA008, Oct. 12, 1997
  18. ^
  19. ^ John Denver Dies In Crash//Singer's Experimental plane falls into OceanChicago Sun Times,Oct 14.1997
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Adam Buckman, Home Movie Disses Denver, New York Post, New York, NY, April 29, 2000,
  23. ^ Accessed 4/16/2009
  24. ^ Denver Post, 3/13/2007
  25. ^ Report from Dunedin, New Zealand on Whisper the Wind.


  • Flippo, Chet (1998) "John Denver", The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Paul Kingsbury, Editor, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 143.
  • Martin, James M. (1977) "John Denver:Rocky Mountain Wonderboy", Pinnacle Books. (Out of print) Biography of Denver with insight into Denver's impact of the 1970s music industry.
  • Orth, Maureen, "Voice of America", Newsweek, December 1976. Includes information on the role of Weintraub in shaping Denver's career which has since been edited out of later versions of his biography.

External links

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