On October 12, 1997, John Denver was killed instantly in his private plane while flying over Monterey Bay in California. He had run out of fuel and was unable to switch to the reserve tank. He was fifty-three years old.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
John Denver - Wikimedia
John was born in 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico. His father was an Air Force Pilot and they moved around a lot so that he had to deal frequently with new schools and new people. Since he was shy, his guitar was his way of making friends, to be accepted, instead of being regarded as just another Air Force brat. Dutch Deutschendorf was his father’s name. At one time, Dutch gave Charles Lindbergh a test drive in a B-25. He was known for breaking eight speed records in one day. John’s older brother Ron was one of the narrators on the documentary.
Early on, John ran away to California with the hope of becoming a folk singer. He came home, only to drop out of college, and go back to Los Angeles. He had a chance to work with the Christy Minstrels. Because his name was John Deutschendorf, they asked him to change it; it would not fit on a theater marquee. They told him “You are John Denver.” It stuck.
The Chad Mitchell Trio
Record producer Milt Okun auditioned Denver in New York City. He was highly impressed. The singer became part of the Chad Mitchell Trio. At the time, he was young and naïve. The Trio featured left wing political satire in their songs. It was a political education for Denver. Their audience was mostly university students who hosted concerts all across the country.
He met Annie Martell when she was a sophomore in college. She was 20 and John was 23. The two were married in 1967. Annie narrated much of the documentary and stated that when she met her husband she thought he was very glamorous, very worldly. She found out that he was not that way at all.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
John wrote a song that Milt Okun liked, but did not like the title. He suggested the title “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and John okayed it. Milt passed it on to Peter, Paul and Mary who had become friends with John, and it became a smash hit. It was the goodbye song when troops were going off to fight in Vietnam. John’s older brother went to Vietnam. On the day he left, John was at the Washington Monument at a peace concert which was a form of war protest.
The Mitchell Trio were struggling. They were out-of-step with the new long-haired rock bands. John decided to leave and go single. He succeeded in being signed to RCA in 1969 as a singer/songwriter. In 1971, his song “The Eagle and the Hawk” was a big hit with RCA. John also had a new manager at that time, Jerry Weintraub, who stated in the film that he always felt that John was going to be a star. John’s wife Annie said that Jerry and John liked each other a lot. She remarked “We all got on a Rocket Ship together and it was big, really big.”
Take Me Home, Country Roads
Again in 1971, Jerry Weintraub suggested a song to him “Take Me Home, Country Roads” which had been written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. John fell in love with it, and it turned out to be a smash hit, selling three million copies.
At this point, John built his dream home in Aspen, Colorado. It was originally an old mining town which became a ski area. It was very laid back, a very safe place, with an intellectual and cultural aspect to it. It had a back-to-nature lifestyle. John preferred to be there rather than in the city. He fell in love with the outdoors. He was in tune with nature as it was in the 70’s. The Rocky Mountains of Colorado inspired his songs. Those mountains for all time are associated with the music of John Denver.
Rocky Mountain High
Annie tells the story that she and John and a group of friends went outdoors one August to watch the Perseid meteor shower which is a breathtaking event, especially in the mountains, once a year. As a result of that evening, John wrote “Rocky Mountain High,” which became his second big hit, along with “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
John had a most successful career as a single singer. What Frank Sinatra was to the 40’s, and Elvis was to the 50’s, John was to the 70’s.
His next move was also a hit. In 1973, Jerry Weintraub procured for John “The John Denver Show” which people watched from their bedrooms. If you enter the public’s bedroom, you had better be a nice person. The small screen was a natural for John. There was a live variety show every week. It was big. It was also successful with British viewers. The cast wore costumes and performed silly songs. The series gave him his catch phrase, “Far Out.” John was now one of the biggest stars of the entertainment world.
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John’s most famous and beloved song is “Annie’s Song,” which he wrote for his wife Annie. They had had an argument that day and John went outdoors to go skiing. The beauty and color of the scenery affected him deeply. “All of those things “filled up my senses.” It was the embodiment of the love he felt at the moment. He wrote the song in 10 minutes and was back home in 45 minutes.
John was not a Tin Pan Alley songwriter. Whenever it hit him, he wrote a song. In 1971, his song “Sunshine on my Shoulder” was another big hit. However, a generation of Rock critics took shots at him. He did not receive the adulation that the Beatles got, even though he sold as many records as they did. The critics called him “The Mickey Mouse of Rock.” They paid attention to his image and not to his music. He felt that his fans were being disparaged, those who fell in love to the tune of his songs, or married or had a baby while listening to his music. The critics had to qualify their statements, however, with “But the 18,000 people seemed to enjoy it.”
One of John’s biggest thrills, as well as his fans’, was having Frank Sinatra on his show at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe in 1976. He had once stated that his dream had always been to be a household name like Frank Sinatra. And here he was, the most popular performer of the decade with Frank Sinatra as his guest. John was now in the Superstar League, with his own Lear Jet. His father flew for him, and taught him to fly.
He and Annie adopted two small children, Zak and Anna Kate Deutchendorf, to whom they were devoted. In spite of his phenomenal success, John was prone to insecurity and self-doubt. He projected the image of a simple soul, yet he was really a complicated person, driven, and struggling with depression. He had a difficult time with success. He did not realize how good he was, and the critics were always a problem for him. Yet, he was America’s favorite singer.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
John Denver - Wikimedia
As he matured, John used his fame to raise awareness of environment issues. Once he was invited to oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau’s ship. He asked Cousteau “Do you mind if I go to the bow of the ship for a while. I have to think.” This was in 1975, and he wrote “Aye, Calypso” at the prow of the ship. It was John’s last hit. He gave the revenue from his song to Cousteau’s charity organization. In addition, he worked on President Carter’s Commission on Hunger. His own foundation, Windstar, which funds environmental education, uses land in Aspen as its base, and hosts international Symposiums. John was ahead of his time.
Falling Out of Love
Just as his status as a pop star was fading in 1982, Annie asked John for a divorce on their 15th Wedding Anniversary. Annie explained that they were young and did not know how to talk about those things. They had too much time away from each other, had different interests and different friends. In 1983, John wrote “Falling Out of Love,” which he sang on the film. Of course, he was depressed about the divorce; he loved his kids and he loved Annie. His father died during that period also. He went through a very difficult time.
In 1986, John met is second wife, singer and actress Cassandra Delaney in Australia. They married after a whirlwind courtship. She said it was love at first sight for both of them. She went on the road with him, and became involved in his environmental campaigning. That year, John recorded the song “My Sweet Lady.”
John’s star had fallen though. He was not invited to the making of the charity record “We are the World.” John and Cassandra had a baby girl but their marriage ended in divorce after four years. He had turned the corner on a number of issues however; he had achieved greater wisdom.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
John Denver Memorial - Wikimedia
Since October 12, 1997, John’s music is still heard around the world. We can only wonder how much more he might have contributed if he had not died at such a young age, at 53 years.