Though his life was snuffed out far too soon, his music and his influence continue to live. Twenty years after his death, John Denver continues to inspire singers and songwriters, activists, and environmentalists.
He wasn’t born John Denver. That name would become his after his first encounter with the famous Colorado city.
He was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. on December 31, 1943. His alcoholic father was a U.S. Air Force Pilot. As a result of his father’s career, the family moved quite a bit. In a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone, John shared his remembrances of high school and his early career.
He started high school in Ft. Worth a week late, and for awhile was a loner. But after bringing his guitar to choir class, people began acknowledging him. As he described it, “Music is what opened the door for me.” That statement would prove to be true in much of his life.
John ran away from home his senior year due to conflicts with his parents. He tried to make it in California, but didn’t have a job and didn’t give music a serious try. So John ended up coming back home and finishing high school. From there, he went to Texas Tech.
Denver said that college was “awfully exciting.” He majored in architecture and thought it would be his career. He described college as his first taste of freedom, and he engaged in social life, sports, and music.
His college years were the ones foreshadowed his later recording career. He said that he was learning from Joan Baez, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter, Paul, and Mary (he would later write the latter’s only No. 1 hit). As he commented, he had been singing that music for quite some time, but now it had a name. Folk music.
Denver described his entrance into music in his Rolling Stone interview. He said that was while in college that he decided to finally focus on his music, despite not having a career path. Thus, he left at semester break of his junior year.
Everyone thought he was making a huge mistake.
When he wrote to his parents to tell them, they surprised him. He remembered their response: “They did what was probably one of the best things they ever did for me, and I think the greatest thing any parents could do for their children: They gave me the space to go. They sent me $200, and they said, “[W]hen you get tired of playing around like that, then let us know and we’ll help you go on from there with your education.”
He didn’t return to college.
Instead, he returned to California. He said he started singing everywhere he could. Surprisingly, he got work as a solo artist. (He mentioned that “someone, somewhere has a tape” of his first week.)
He lied about his age to sign a contract (he was only 20, not 21). Then he worked in Los Angeles until he moved to Phoenix. His big break happened shortly after.
Denver got a call that Chad Mitchell was leaving the Chad Mitchell Trio (a band that influenced him while he was still in school). Despite a cold, he flew to New York and auditioned.
He auditioned twice.
The first one didn’t go well, but he gave the second one. Denver says he was told to wait for their call, so he went back to Arizona and listened for the phone to ring.
It finally did.
A few days later, they picked him up and after six days of rehearsal, he open with the band at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C.
That was his entrance into the music industry.
During his time with the Chad Mitchell Trio, Denver continued both performing with the band and writing and recording his songs. It was also during this time that he wrote: “Leaving, on a Jet Plane.”
He decided to go to Aspen, which proved to be a good choice, at least for awhile. But then he returned to D.C., his recording contract with RCA was limping along. It was here he met a promotor, pivoted his career, and made him a star: Jerry Weintraub.
When Denver met Weintraub, the game changed.
Weintraub knew where Denver’s strengths were. He saw him not just as a musician, but a television star. And audiences loved him. Denver said that the audience was much of what kept him going.
It was while working with Weintraub that Denver’s second big break came. Bill and Taffy Danoff had started writing “Country Roads.” (It would later be titled “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”) Weintraub instantly recognized this as the song Denver needed to record.
It didn’t immediately chart well. In fact, it was only in the top 50, plus the initial recordings were distorted (keep in mind, was long before digital). RCA wanted to pull the record. But Denver and Weintraub fought for the record, and to good measure: in 1972 it went to No. 1 on the charts. Now John Denver was a name people knew.
Denver followed “Take me Home, Country Roads” with a slew of hits. “Rocky Mountain High” sold over a million copies. “Sunshine On My Shoulders” and “Annie’s Song” (written for his wife) both did exceptionally well. So much so that he was the best-selling pop musician of 1974.
Other hits continued, with “Back Home Again,” “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” and “Calypso.”
His songs referenced essential causes and meaningful events in his life. These would later become even more pointed. But his early music referenced merely his feelings about himself and the world. “Calypso,” for example, was titled after Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s research boat of the same name.
He became so well-known that, as Rolling Stone recalls, the “governor of Colorado proclaimed John Denver the state’s poet laureate.” He continued to appear on television and in movies during these years, which only increased his popularity.
As John Denver became famous for his music, he also developed notoriety for his commitment to ecological and political causes.
He volunteered for several agencies to advance his progressive agenda, including National Space Institute, the Cousteau Society, Friends of the Earth, Save the Children Foundation, and the European Space Agency. Denver also co-founded the Windstar Foundation, a non-profit wildlife preservation agency. Additionally, he became a chair member of the National UNICEF Day in 1984.
As his website notes, he was also involved in creating better relations between the US and USSR during the Cold War of the 1980s and even did a concert tour in the USSR.
A Man of Two Worlds
Despite, his public image, John Denver was a man who lived in two worlds.
One was the world of his music. This was a celebration of peaceful and simple things. The other was the demons of his life and his mental health.
In a 1979 interview with People, Denver discussed the brief separation from his wife, Annie. He also described his bouts of depression, saying, “When I get depressed, I question whether life is worth living.”
In later years, he battled alcoholism and drug addiction. (He was arrested for drunk driving in 1993 and in 1994.)
His celebrated marriage to Annie also came to an end. The couple divorced in 1982, and it was reported that he had moments of violence during their custody battle. In 1991, his second marriage also ended in divorce
A Lasting Legacy
John Denver was a man of adventure. He not only promoted nature but spent a considerable amount of time in the outdoors. Golfing, skiing, hiking, and photography were all part of his life. He also enjoyed being a pilot, and it was this love that resulted in his death. On October 12, 1997, the plane he was piloting crashed in Monterey Bay, California, killing him instantly.
Twenty years after his death, he continues to influence singers and songwriters. In 2017, his songs were in six major motion pictures: Free Fire; Alien: Covenant; Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul; Okja; Logan Lucky, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
His work and life were also showcased this year at the Woody Guthrie Center and the Denver International Airport. Additionally, his estate has released his cover of Judy Collins’ “The Blizzard.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what created such a legacy. Certainly, it had to do with his fame to a generation that is mostly still alive. But it seems to be more than that.
His lyrics capture the imagination and seem to transport the listener to a time that was presumably more simple. Even his more politically-motivated songs have a softness that eases the listener into a tacit agreement.
Perhaps it is the love of hearth, home, and family of which he sings. Or maybe his songs create in all of us the desire to stand in the midst of nature in awe-inspired appreciation.
But what is certain is that John Denver’s music did not die in that plane crash. His ashes are scattered over the Rocky Mountains, but his words and his voice live on in our memories.