(Read all about John Denver after the video)
Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. (December 31, 1943 – October 12, 1997), known professionally as John Denver, was an American musician, singer-songwriter, record producer, activist, actor, and humanitarian, whose greatest commercial success was as a solo singer, starting in the 1970s. He was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the decade and one of its best-selling artists. By 1974, he was firmly established as America's best-selling performer, and AllMusic has described Denver as "among the most beloved entertainers of his era". 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. Throughout his life, Denver recorded and released approximately 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed, with total sales of over 33 million.
He recorded and performed primarily with an acoustic guitar and sang about his joy in nature, his enthusiasm for music, and his relationship trials. Denver's music appeared on a variety of charts, including country music, the Billboard Hot 100, and adult contemporary, in all earning him twelve gold and four platinum albums with his signature songs "Take Me Home, Country Roads", "Annie's Song", "Rocky Mountain High", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", and "Sunshine on My Shoulders".
Denver further starred in films and several notable television specials in the 1970s and 1980s. In the following decade, 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 against 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. He was named 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 in a single-fatality crash of his personal experimental aircraft at the age of 53.
Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., was born in Roswell, New Mexico, to Lt. Col. Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., an Air Force officer (who set three speed records in the B-58 Hustler bomber and earned a place in the Air Force Hall of Fame) and Erma Louise Swope. 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. He is also the nephew of singer Dave Deutschendorf of The New Christy Minstrels.
Because Denver's father was in the military, the family moved often, making it difficult for Denver to make friends and fit in with other children of his own age. Constantly being the new kid was troubling for the introverted Denver, and he grew up always feeling like 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 in a friend's jet to retrieve him and Denver reluctantly 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 studied Architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and sang in a folk-music group called "The Alpine Trio" while pursuing architectural 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, where he sang in folk clubs. In 1965, Denver joined the The Mitchell Trio, replacing founder Chad Mitchell, which later became "Denver, Boise, and Johnson" (John Denver, David Boise, and Michael Johnson).
In 1969, 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 he had written 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. Producer Milt Okun, who produced records for the Mitchell Trio and the high-profile folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, had become Denver's producer as well. Okun brought the unreleased "Jet Plane" song to Peter, Paul and Mary. Their version of the song hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Denver's composition also made it to the U.K. No.2 spot in February 1970, having also made No.1 on the U.S. Cash Box chart in December, 1969. (Ironically, this was the only single to hit number one for the group.)
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 persuading a school, college, American Legion hall, or local coffee-house to let him play, he would spend a day or so distributing posters in the town and could usually be counted upon to show up at the local radio station, guitar in hand, offering himself for an interview. With his foot in the door as author of "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 persuade 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 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 2 on the Billboard charts despite the first pressings of the track being distorted. Its success was due in part 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 started 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. Between 1974 and 1975, Denver experienced an impressive chart dominance, with a string of four No.1 songs ("Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Annie's Song", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", and "I'm Sorry") and three No.1 albums (John Denver's Greatest Hits, Back Home Again, and Windsong).
In the 1970s, Denver's onstage appearance included long blond hair, embroidered shirts emblazoned with images commonly associated with the American West (created by designer & appliqué artist Anna Zapp), and "granny" glasses. His manager, Jerry Weintraub, insisted on a significant number of television appearances, including a series of half-hour shows in United Kingdom, despite Denver's protests at the time, "I've had no success in Britain... I mean none." 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."
After appearing as a guest on many shows, Denver went on to host his own variety/music specials, including several concerts from Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver. His seasonal special, Rocky Mountain Christmas, was watched by more than 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. 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 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. He expressed his ecologic interests in the epic 1975 song "Calypso," which is an ode to the exploration ship and team of environmental activist Jacques Cousteau. 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 Reagan 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.
Later years and humanitarian work
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 (about whom he wrote and composed "What One Man Can Do") 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 and composed "The Gold and Beyond," and he 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 he was turned down. According to Ken Kragen (who helped to produce the song), the reason 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.
Due to his love of flying, he was 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, but he was not chosen. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, Denver 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, Denver 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 cannabis, LSD, and cocaine use, his marital infidelities, and his history of domestic violence. 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, titled All Aboard! This was 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 Anne Martell of St. Peter, Minnesota. She was the subject of his hit "Annie's Song," which he composed in only ten minutes as he sat on a Colorado ski lift after the couple had an argument. They lived in Edina, Minnesota, from 1968 to 1971. Following the success of "Rocky Mountain High", inspired by a camping trip with Anne and some friends, Denver purchased a residence in Aspen, Colorado. He lived in Aspen continuously until his death. The Denvers adopted a boy, Zachary John, and girl, Anna Kate, whom Denver would say were "meant to be" theirs. Denver 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, who is African-American, 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 Martell divorced in 1982. In a 1983 interview shown in the documentary John Denver: Country Boy (2013), Denver said that career demands drove them apart; Anne said that they were too-young and immature to deal with John's sudden mega-success. The ensuing property settlement caused Denver to become so enraged, he nearly choked Martell, then used a chainsaw to cut their marital bed in half. Martell continues to live in Aspen.
Denver married Australian actress Cassandra Delaney in 1988, after a two-year courtship. Settling at Denver's home 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. 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. Artistic interests included painting, but because of his limiting schedule he pursued photography, saying once "photography is a way to communicate a feeling". Denver was also an avid skier and golfer, but his principal interest was in flying. His love of flying was second only to his love of music. In 1974 he bought a Learjet to fly himself to concerts. He was a collector of vintage biplanes, and in addition made the purchase of a Christen Eagle aerobatic plane, two Cessna 210 airplanes, and in 1997, an experimental, amateur-built Rutan Long-EZ.
On October 12, 1997, Denver was killed when his experimental Adrian Davis Long-EZ plane, aircraft registration number N555JD, crashed into Monterey Bay 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. Denver was the only occupant of the aircraft. The crash seriously disfigured Denver's head and body, making identification impossible by dental records, so records of his fingerprints were used to confirm that the fallen pilot was, indeed, the singer.
A pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience, Denver had pilot ratings for single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider, and instrument. He also held a type rating in his Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft (which was made by someone else from a kit) and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before the accident.
Denver was not legally permitted to fly at the time of the accident. In years prior Denver had a number of drunk driving arrests. In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration had learned that Denver had failed to maintain sobriety by failing to refrain entirely from alcohol, and thus the FAA was compelled to revoke his medical certification. The accident, however, was not influenced by alcohol use, as there was no sign of alcohol or other 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 switch fuel tanks during flight. The quantity of fuel had been depleted during the plane's transfer to Monterey and in several brief practice takeoffs and landings performed by Denver at the airport immediately prior to the final flight. His newly purchased experimental Rutan had an unusual fuel selector valve handle configuration. Intended by the plane's designer to be located between the pilot's legs, the fuel selector had instead been placed by the plane's 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 given the positioning of the fuel selector valves, switching the craft's fuel tanks required a pilot to turn his body 90 degrees to reach the valve. This created a natural tendency to extend one's right foot against the right rudder pedal to support oneself while turning in the seat, causing the aircraft to yaw (Nose right) and pitch up.
According to the mechanic, after he had noted to Denver that the fuel sight gauges were visible only to the rear cockpit occupant, Denver asked 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 an 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 refused an offer to take on additional fuel, informing the mechanic that he would only be flying for about one hour.
The NTSB interviewed 20 witnesses of Denver's last flight; six of them had 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. 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.
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, the NTSB determined there were several other key factors that led to the accident. Primary among these was the inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft by the pilot, and the builder's decision to locate the unmarked fuel selector handle in a difficult-to-access location. Following its investigation the board issued 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 to all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft.