It’s hard to believe that John Denver’s been gone so long. The other day, I listened to a CD packed with his most popular songs. I had nearly forgotten how timeless his music is.
Was there a woman alive under 80 who didn’t want to be Annie Martell after hearing Annie’s Song the first time?
In the 1970s, I was a college student who majored in journalism but who was also musically trained at a professional level. One of my unrealized ambitions – well, an obsession at the time – was to sing backup for John Denver. It never happened. Like many of my peers, I walked from class to class humming his songs, in particular Country Roads, Rocky Mountain High and Leavin’ on a Jet Plane, recorded in 1969 by Peter, Paul and Mary.
I never could figure out, back then, what was so special about his performances, but special they were. Great voice, yes. Little-boy look, sure. Decades later, I’m convinced that what was unusual about his stuff was that those of us who heard it remembered both the music and the lyrics. That’s probably because he wrote so many of them himself.
And the glasses. Was there anybody else on the face of the earth whose glasses – or lack of them in later years – got so much press?
Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. on December 31, 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography. An Air Force brat, he lived in various communities as well as overseas. One of his happiest memories supposedly was growing up on his grandmother’s farm in Oklahoma. It was there that he first encountered the guitar when she gave him an antique Gibson.
John Denver dropped out of Texas Tech to move to Los Angeles in 1964. The following year, he replaced Chad Mitchell as a vocalist, guitarist and banjoist for the Chad Mitchell Trio, beating out 250 other wannabes.
Many fans never realized how driven he was to write songs. As he moved through the 1970s with one hit after another, his popularity with both pop and country audiences grew. In 1974, he was named Poet Laureate of Colorado. The next year, he won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award.
Much of John Denver’s music of the 1980s was linked to activist and humanitarian endeavors. In 1993, he won an Albert Schweitzer Music Award for humanitarian activity, the first non-classical musician to earn this honor.
However, this decade was apparently not the happiest of his life. In 1982, his wife, Annie, filed for divorce. Six years later, he married actress Cassandra Delaney, a union that also ended in divorce. He decided to issue what became his last albums under his own Windstar Label.
Love of Aviation
Denver claimed aviation as a hobby in the mid-1970s. His father taught him to fly. Over time, he was considered an experienced pilot and flew his own aircraft on tour and in the Monterey Peninsula area of California, where he rented a home.
In the summer of 1997, the singer purchased a Long EZ aircraft from a local veterinarian. Although it was considered an experimental model, he apparently had no trouble flying the aircraft during lessons on the West Coast.
Denver played golf with some friends on October 12, 1997 and apparently was eager to spend an hour flying the new plane over the Pacific. While his first few practice takeoffs and landings went off without a hitch, on his last run, the plane plummeted into the ocean.
According to CNN, the engine of the two-seated light plane failed shortly after 5 p.m., sending it into the Pacific just beyond Monterey Bay. Officials required several hours to identify John Denver’s remains. It was not the first aviation accident in which he had been involved.
John Denver died at 53. During his career, he had 14 gold and 8 platinum albums in the United States, though his popularity extended around the globe. At the time of his death, Sony Records reported that he was one of the five top-selling artists in the history of the music industry.
All in all, we loved him because he was very, very good at making us feel good.