An American country music/folk singer-songwriter and folk rock musician.
After traveling and living in numerous locations while growing up in his military family, Denver began his music career in folk music groups in the late 1960s. His greatest commercial success was as a solo singer.
Throughout his life, Denver recorded and released approximately 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed. He performed primarily with an acoustic guitar and sang about his joy in nature, his enthusiasm for music, and relationship trials.
Denver's music appeared on a variety of charts, including country and western, the Billboard Hot 100, and adult contemporary, in all earning him 12 gold and 4 platinum albums with his signature songs "Take Me Home, Country Roads", "Rocky Mountain High", and "Sunshine on My Shoulders".
Denver further starred in films and several notable television specials in the 1970s and 1980s. In the following decades, he continued to record, but also focused on calling attention to environmental issues, lent his vocal support to space exploration, and testified in front of Congress to protest censorship in music.
He was known for his love of the state of Colorado, which he sang about numerous times. He lived in Aspen, Colorado, for much of his life, and influenced the governor to name him Poet Laureate of the state in 1974.
The Colorado state legislature also adopted "Rocky Mountain High" as one of its state songs in 2007. Denver was an avid pilot, and died while flying his personal aircraft at the age of 53. Denver was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the 1970s.
Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., was born in Roswell, New Mexico, to Erma Louise Swope and Lt. Col. Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (who set three speed records in the B-58 Hustler bomber and earned a place in the Air Force Hall of Fame). Henry Sr. was of German ancestry, and met and married his "Oklahoma Sweetheart".
Denver's Irish Catholic and German maternal grandmother was the one who imbued Denver with his love of music. In his autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver described his life as the eldest son of a family shaped by a stern father who could not show his love for his children.
Because Denver's father was in the military, the family moved often, making it difficult for Denver to make friends and fit in with people of his own age. Constantly being the new kid was agony for the introverted child, 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, Arizona, Denver was a member of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus for two years. Denver was happy living in Tucson, but 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 disenfranchised Denver. In his third year of high school, he borrowed his father's car and ran away to California to visit family friends and begin his music career. His father flew to California to bring him back, and Denver unhappily returned to finish high school.
At the age of 11, Denver received an acoustic guitar from his grandmother. He learned 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. He decided to change his name when Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christy Minstrels, suggested that "Deutschendorf" wouldn't fit comfortably on a marquee.
Denver attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock and sang in a folk-music group called "The Alpine Trio" while pursuing architecture studies. He was also a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. Denver dropped out of the Texas Tech School of Engineering in 1963, and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he sang in folk clubs. In 1965, Denver 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, John Denver abandoned the band life to pursue a solo career and released his first album for RCA Records: Rhymes & Reasons. Two years prior, Denver had made a self-produced demo recording of some of the songs he played at his concerts. He included in the demo a song called "Babe I Hate to Go," later renamed "Leaving on A Jet Plane."
Denver made several copies and gave them out as presents for Christmas. Mitchell Trio manager Milt Okun brought the unreleased "Jet Plane" song to the high-profile folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Their version of the song hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although RCA did not actively promote Rhymes & Reasons 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 coffee-house to let him play, he would spend a day or so postering the town and could usually be counted upon to show up at the local radio station, guitar in hand, offering himself for an intervie.
With his 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, Take Me to Tomorrow and Whose Garden Was This, including a mix of songs he had written and cover versions of other artists' compositions.
His live concert special, An Evening with John Denver, won the 1974–1975 Emmy for Outstanding Special, Comedy-Variety or Music.
When Denver ended his business relationship because of Weintraub's focus on other projects, Weintraub threw Denver out of his office and called him a Nazi. Denver would later tell Arthur Tobier, when the latter transcribed 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 the lifelong friendship between Denver and Jim Henson that spawned two television specials with The Muppets.
He also tried his hand at acting, appearing in the The Colorado Cattle Caper episode of the McCloud television movie on February 24, 1974, and 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 on multiple occasions.
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 presented the award to his successor, but in protest of what he considered the inappropriateness of Denver's selection, Rich set fire to the envelope containing the official notification of the award.
However, Denver's music was defended by country singer Kathy Mattea, who told Alanna Nash of 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."
In 1977, Denver cofounded The Hunger Project with Werner Erhard and Robert W. Fuller. He served for many years and supported the organization until his death. Denver 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 & Reasons" at the Music for UNICEF Concert. Royalties from the concert performances were donated to UNICEF. His father taught him to fly in the mid-1970s, which led to a reconciliation between father and son.
In 1980, Denver and his father, Lt. Col. “Dutch” Deutschendorf, co-hosted an award winning television special, "The Higher We Fly: the History of Flight." It won the Osborn Award from the Aviation/Space Writers’ Association, and was honored by the Houston Film Festival.
Denver became outspoken in politics in the mid-1970s. In 1976, he campaigned for Jimmy Carter, who became a close friend and ally. Denver was a supporter of the Democratic Party and of 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, Denver was critical of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Administration, but he remained active in his campaign against hunger, for which Reagan awarded Denver the Presidential World Without Hunger Award in 1985. Denver's criticism of the conservative politics of the 1980s was 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 he 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. Denver was also on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society for many years.
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.
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 two environmental groups; the Windstar Foundation and Plant-It 2020 (originally Plant-It 2000). 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 toward 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 "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Let The Sunshine In", joined by such diverse musical icons as Jennifer Warnes, Donna Summer, and Rick James.
In 1984, Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, asked Denver to compose and sing the theme song for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Denver worked as both a performer and a skiing commentator (skiing was another avocation of Denver's). He had written "The Gold and Beyond", and sang it for the Olympic Games athletes, as well as local venues including many schools.
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 as a pop-rock anthem. "I didn't agree" with this assessment, Kragen said, but reluctantly turned Denver down anyway.
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.
With Denver's innate love of flying, he was naturally attracted to NASA and became dedicated to America’s work in outer space. He conscientiously worked to help bring into being the “Citizens in Space” program. Denver received the NASA Public Service Medal, in 1985 for “helping to increase awareness of space exploration by the peoples of the world,” an award usually restricted to spaceflight engineers and designers.
Also in 1985, Denver passed NASA’s rigorous physical exam and was in line for a space flight, a finalist for the first citizen’s trip on the Space Shuttle in 1986. He was not chosen. After the Challenger disaster with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, John dedicated his song “Flying for Me” to all astronauts, and he continued to support NASA.
Denver testified before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on the topic of censorship during a Parents Music Resource Center hearing in 1985. Denver also toured Russia in 1985. His 11 Soviet Union concerts were the first by any American artist in more than 10 years, and they 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 disaster. In October 1992, John undertook a multiple-city tour of the People's Republic of China. He also released a greatest-hits CD, "Homegrown," to raise money for homeless charities.
In 1994, he published his autobiography, Take Me Home, in which he candidly spoke of his marijuana, LSD, and cocaine use, his marital infidelities, history of domestic violence, and a suicide attempt in a London hotel room. 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.
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, which was his only Grammy.
Denver's first marriage was to Annie Martell of St. Peter, Minnesota. Their wedding was held at the Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College. Annie was the subject of his hit Annie's Song, which he composed in only ten minutes while on a ski lift in 1974.
The couple lived in Edina, Minnesota, from 1968 to 1971. Following the success of "Rocky Mountain High," Denver purchased a residence in Colorado and owned one home in Colorado continuously until his death. He and Annie adopted a son, Zachary, and daughter, Anna Kate, who John would say were “meant to be” theirs. John once said, "I'll tell you the best thing about me. I'm some guy's dad; I'm some little gal's dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate's father, boy, that's enough for me to be remembered by. That's more than enough."
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. Denver and Annie Martell divorced in 1982 and the ensuing property settlement caused Denver to become so enraged he nearly choked his ex-wife, then used a chainsaw to cut the marital bed in half. Martell continues to live in Aspen, Colorado.
John Denver married Australian actress Cassandra Delaney in 1988, after a two-year courtship. Settling in Aspen, the couple had a daughter, Jesse Belle. Denver and Delaney separated in 1991 and divorced in 1993.
Of his second marriage, Denver would later recall that "before our short-lived marriage ended in divorce, she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other."
In 1993, Denver pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge, and was placed on probation. In August 1994, while still on probation, he was again charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence after crashing his Porsche into a tree in Aspen, Colorado.
Though a jury trial in July 1997 resulted in a hung jury on the second DUI charge, prosecutors later decided to reopen the case, which was closed only after Denver's accidental death in October 1997.
In 1996, the FAA decided that Denver could no longer fly a plane due to medical disqualification for failure to abstain from alcohol, a condition that the FAA had imposed in October 1995 after his prior drunk-driving conviction.
Denver's talent extended beyond music. He was a painter as well, but because of his limiting schedule, he pursued photography. He once said that "photography is a way to communicate a feeling." Denver was an avid skier and golfer. His love of flying was secondary only to his love for music.
He collected vintage biplanes, and in 1974, he bought a Learjet, which he used to fly himself to concerts. He also bought a Christen Eagle aerobatic plane, two Cessna 210 and in 1997, an experimental, amateur-built Rutan Long-EZ.
On October 12, 1997, Denver was killed at the age of 53 when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane, aircraft registration number N555JD, crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove, California, while making a series of touch-and-go landings at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) accident ID is LAX98FA008.
As the crash badly disfigured Denver's head and body, making identification by dental records impossible, records of his fingerprints taken from his arrests for intoxicated driving were used to confirm that the fallen pilot was indeed the singer.
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 his 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. Denver was the sole occupant of the aircraft.
In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration had learned of Denver's failure to abstain entirely from alcohol after his drunk driving arrests, and had previously revoked his medical certification.
Since Denver was required by the FAA to have at least a third-class medical certification in order to exercise the privileges of his pilot certificate, he was not legally able to fly at the time of the accident. However, there was no trace of alcohol or drugs in Denver's body at autopsy.
Post-accident investigation by the NTSB showed that the leading cause of the accident was Denver's inability to safely execute a switch of fuel tanks in flight. The quantity of fuel had been virtually depleted during the plane's transfer to Monterey and several brief practice circles performed by Denver at the airport immediately prior to the final flight. His newly purchased experimental Rutan had an unusual configuration of the fuel selector valve handle.
Intended by the plane's designer to be located between the pilot's legs, the fuel selector had instead been placed by the builder behind the left shoulder of the pilot, with the fuel gauge also behind the pilot's seat and thus not visible to the person at the controls. An NTSB interview with the aircraft mechanic servicing Denver's plane revealed that he and Denver had discussed the inaccessibility of the cockpit fuel selector valve handle and its resistance to being turned.
Before the flight, Denver and the mechanic had attempted to extend the reach of the handle, using a pair of Vise-Grip pliers. However, this did not solve the problem, as the pilot could still not reach the handle while strapped into his seat. NTSB investigators' post-accident investigation showed that switching the craft's fuel tanks, given the positioning of the fuel selector valves, required a pilot to turn his body a full 90 degrees in order reach the valve.
This created a natural tendency to extend one's right foot against the right rudder pedal to support himself as he turned in the seat, causing the aircraft to yaw and pitch up.
After the mechanic noted that the fuel sight gauges were visible to only the rear cockpit occupant, Denver asked him about the quantity of fuel shown. The mechanic told Denver that he had "less than half in the right tank and less than a quarter in the left tank".
The mechanic then provided Denver with a shop inspection mirror so that he could look over his shoulder at the fuel sight gauges; the mirror was later recovered in the wreckage.
Denver told the mechanic that he would use the autopilot inflight, if necessary, to hold the airplane level while he turned the fuel selector valve. Denver declined an offer to take on additional fuel, telling the mechanic that he would only be flying for about one hour.
Twenty witnesses to the accident were interviewed by the NTSB, some of whom observed the plane's crash into the ocean near Point Pinos. Four of the witnesses indicated that the airplane was originally heading west; five of them observed the airplane in a steep bank, with four of those five reporting the bank was to the right (north).
Twelve witnesses saw the airplane in a steep nose-down descent, and 6 of them saw the airplane hit the water. Witnesses estimated the plane's height at 350 to 500 feet while heading toward the shoreline. Eight of the witnesses said that they heard a "pop" or "backfire," along with a reduction in the engine noise level just before the airplane descended into the water.
The NTSB determined that, in addition to Denver's failure to refuel the plane prior to takeoff and his subsequent loss of control while attempting to switch fuel tanks, there were several key contributing factors. Primary among these were the pilot's inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft and the plane's builder's decision to locate the unmarked fuel selector handle in a hard-to-access position.
Subsequent to its investigation, the Board issued its recommendations regarding the requirement and enforcement of mandatory training standards for pilots engaged in operating experimental aircraft. The Board also emphasized the importance of mandatory ease of access of all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft.
Upon announcement of Denver's death, Colorado governor Roy Romer ordered all state flags to be lowered to half staff in his honor. 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.
On September 23, 2007, nearly ten years after his death, his brother Ron witnessed the dedication of a plaque placed near the crash-site in Pacific Grove, California, commemorating the singer.
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 his feelings 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. The New York Post observed, "An overachiever like John Denver couldn't have been this boring."
Denver's music remains 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, the Colorado 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".
On April 21, 2011, John Denver became the first inductee into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. A benefit concert was held at Broomfield's 1stBank Center and hosted by Olivia Newton-John. Other performers participating in the event included Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lee Ann Womack and John Oates. Both of his ex-wives were in attendance, and the award was presented to his three children.
Awards and recognitionAcademy 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
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