Denver was a successful crossover star in pop, folk, and country music whose wholesome image and memorable songs, celebrating nature and the simple pleasures of life, made him the top-selling solo artist in the 1970’s. One of the first musicians from his generation to have a successful film and television career, Denver used his immense popularity to promote environmental and humanitarian causes worldwide.
Born: December 31, 1943; Roswell, New Mexico
Died: October 12, 1997; Monterey Bay, near Pacific Grove, California
Born to Erma Louise Swope and Air Force officer Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., John Deutschendorf started playing music at eleven when his grandmother gave him a Gibson guitar. After studying architecture at Texas Tech University, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. He changed his stage name to Denver, after the capital city of Colorado. In 1965 Denver became the lead singer for the popular folk group the Chad Mitchell Trio, and he became famous when in 1969 Peter, Paul, and Mary’s recording of his song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” became the number-one song in America. Denver’s first single to sell a million copies was “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in 1971.
During the 1970’s he became an internationally known recording artist, songwriter, and performer. Denver also starred opposite George Burns in the movie Oh, God! (1977) and made numerous television specials, including a classic Christmas program with Jim Henson’s Muppets andAnEvening with John Denver (1975), which won an Emmy award. His career slowed down after the 1970’s, but in 1996 Denver was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Denver married and divorced twice: His first wife was Annie Martell and his second wife was Cassandra Delaney. He had three children: Zachary, Anna Kate, and Jesse Belle. In 1997 Denver died when the home-built aircraft he was piloting crashed into Monterey Bay in California. The Music Denver reached the peak of his commercial success during the 1970’s. By 1975 he had become the best-selling recording artist in America and an internationally celebrated folk poet.
By 1979 Denver had sold more than a hundred million records. Eight albums had sold more than two million copies each. He wrote songs about the beauty of nature and universal human experiences and emotions, with lyrics and melodies that were simple, direct, personal, and memorable. In their Album 1700, Peter, Paul, and Mary had included one of Denver’s early compositions, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which became a number-one hit single in 1969. Sentimental but melodic, the song expressed the universal feeling of sadness when a couple separates but also the hope and joy of the future reunion and even marriage. “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” In his first million seller, released in 1971 on the album “Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” Denver sang nostalgically of West Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Shenandoah River. “Rocky Mountain High” (1972) was Denver’s personal song of rebirth in the place where he most wanted to be.
During his first summer in the Rocky Mountains, Denver went on a camping trip to watch the Perseid meteor shower, when it was “raining fire in the sky,” and he remembered a close friend who had just been killed in a motorcycle accident. The song described a natural high from experiencing the starlight, cathedral mountains, silver clouds, flying eagles, and a clear mountain lake. However, Denver also expressed a fear of the mountains being torndownfor commercial development. “Sunshine on My Shoulders” was created on a dreary, gray, cold day in Minnesota during late winter. Denver had been asked to write a theme song for a television movie about two dying people spending their last day together. Thinking of their sadness and his wish for spring, Denver wrote about how sunshine almost always lifted his spirits. Released as a single in 1973, it reached number one on the charts in 1974. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Originally recorded on his album Back Home Again (1974), “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was released as a single in February, 1975, and was number one on the pop charts and a million seller by June.
The homegrown lyrics extolled the joys of rural living and being happy as long as a man had a farm, his wife, fiddle, and food on the griddle. “Annie’s Song.” Denver wrote this for his wife Annie after some problems in their relationship, when they had reconciled and created a closer bond. One day, during the ten minutes it took to go up a ski lift, Denver composed “Annie’s Song.” As his enjoyment of the mountains, forest, ocean, and all of nature filled his senses, he realized how the woman he loved also filled up his senses completely. Intensely romantic but simple, the lyrics are about a lover who asks for a lifetime with his love, for his senses to be filled again and again, and to die in his love’s arms. Musical Legacy Denver produced thirty albums and won fourteen gold and eight platinum albums. Reaching a worldwide audience, he used his music and fame to promote peace and environmental and humanitarian causes. Denver believed in the global community. In 1985 he became the first American artist to perform in the Soviet Union since the beginning of the Cold War.
This experience inspired the song “Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?)”on his One World album (1986). In 1987 he did a benefit concert for the victims of the nuclear-plant accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and in 1992 Denver became the first Western artist to do a multicity tour of mainland China. Denver’s philanthropicwork included innumerable causes, including Friends of the Earth, the Hunger Project, Save the Children, theHumanDolphin Foundation, andUNICEF(the United Nations Children’s Fund), which chose Denver’s “Rhymes & Reasons” as its official song. In 1993 Denver became the first nonclassical musician to receive the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for humanitarianism. Denver was one of the first musicians to support environmental causes through his songs. In 1975 he wrote “Calypso” in honor of Jacques Cousteau and his efforts to protect the ocean. Denver often closed his concerts with this song, one of this favorites. The Windstar Foundation, which Denver cofounded in 1976 to promote wildlife and land conservation, continues its mission in the twenty-first century.