John Denver was one of the greatest American country/folk singers. Many years after his untimely death in 1997, his songs are still popular, gaining new fans around the world.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on December 31, 1943, Denver was given a Gibson guitar at the age of 12. In his early twenties, he changed his last name to Denver since “Deutschendorf” wasn’t an exceedingly marketable name. Denver sang around clubs in Los Angeles with a band called Denver, Boise and Johnson until 1969, when he left the band to pursue a solo career.
Denver signed with RCA Records and released his first album, Rhymes and Reason which was not such a success. In 1970, Denver recorded two more albums, both of which went gold: Whose Garden Was This? and Take Me To Tomorrow. In 1971, Poems, Prayers and Promises was released. Denver’s most popular song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is on this album.
In 1973, Denver scored his first Top Ten album with Rocky Mountain High, and 1974 saw three of his songs reach the top 5 on the Billboards: “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” and “Back Home Again.” And in 1975, “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” and “Calypso” went to number one, while “Fly Away” and “Sweet Surrender” hit the top twenty. For these accomplishments, Denver won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1975.
Denver also appeared in a string of TV appearances, guest-starring on The Muppet Show and hosting the Grammy Awards in 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985! Although his next albums did well enough, he never really regained his former heights and instead chose to focus on his other ventures.
Denver’s first famous song was “Leaving on a Jet Plane ” in Rhymes and Reason. Written in 1967, the most popular version was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.
“ Take Me Home, Country Roads” was the song that made John Denver famous around the world. Denver wrote it with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. On the album Poems, Prayers and Promises, it was also released as a 45. By August 18, 1971, the song had sold a million copies. Even to this day, despite multiple other hits, the song remains Denver’s trademark.
"Rocky Mountain High" was released in 1973 and was inspired by Aspen, Colorado. The song eventually became one of the official state songs of Colorado and went to #9 on the US Hot 100.
“Annie’s Song” was released in 1974. The song, written about his wife, has become a standard at weddings. It’s also the only John Denver song to reach #1 in the UK, where he never quite managed to break out.
"Thank God I'm A Country Boy" was released in March of 1975. It went to top the charts on the Billboard Hot 100.
Politics and Humanitarian Work
Denver was never afraid to express his beliefs and he did it often – and loudly. A passionate environmentalist, he was appointed to serve on the President’s Commission on World Hunger by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Denver also helped found The Hunger Project alongside Werner Erhard and Robert W. Fuller. He wrote a special song, “I Want to Live,” exclusively for The Hunger Project. He also founded the Windstar Foundation in 1975. Denver was particularly disgusted with the conservative politics of the 1980s; so much so that he wrote an entire album, Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For) to voice his ideas.
John Denver married Annie Martell on June 9, 1967. They had a rocky start, including a breakup that lasted just three days before they got back together. As Denver was infertile, they adopted a son, Zachary, and daughter, Anna. He wrote “A Baby Just Like You” and “Merry Christmas, Little Zachary” for Zachary. Annie, meanwhile, was the inspiration for “Annie’s Song.” The couple was together for 11 years before Annie asked for a divorce in 1982.
In 1988, Denver married for a second time. He wed actress and singer Cassandra Delaney. After he got treatment for infertility, they had a daughter named Jesse. That marriage did not last either – the couple divorced in 1991. In 1994, his autobiography, Take Me Home, was published, and in 1996, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
For years, Denver had been avid pilot. On October 12, 1997, with over 2,700 hours of piloting experience under his belt, 53-year-old Denver took off from the Monterey Peninsula Airport. Around 5:23 PM, 150 feet from shore and 500 feet above the ocean, a popping sound was heard. Witnesses saw the plane plunge straight down into the water and fracture apart on impact. The wreck damaged Denver’s body so badly that they had to refer to dental records to identify the body. In fact, a great portion of Denver’s body was never recovered at all.
Denver’s body was cremated and taken to Colorado, where a funeral was held on October 17, 1997, at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Aspen. Over 2,000 mourners attended the ceremony.
As of 2009, there are thirty-nine albums in the John Denver discography. Some were released before his death, but a great many were released afterwards. With his acoustic guitar he achieved 14 gold and eight platinum albums as well as many top-twenty singles including some platinum ones. Some albums were even re-released.