Obituary: John Denver
Tuesday 14 October 1997
It is surprising to discover that John Denver only had one UK Top 30 hit, "Annie's Song". Despite numerous tours and television appearances, the British public ignored all his other US No 1s - "Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Back Home Again", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", "Calypso" and "I'm Sorry". In the same way that the British public never latched on to surf records, maybe his Johnny-One-Note theme of the Rocky Mountains was too alien to us. Most of us thank God we're city boys - and if we had all followed John Denver into the wilderness, there would have been no wilderness at all.
He was born Henry John Deutschendorf, the son of an air force pilot, in Roswell, New Mexico, on New Year's Eve 1943. His father's job meant that he had an unsettled childhood, although they did spend seven years in Tucson, Arizona. His constant companion was a guitar given to him by his grandmother and he paid tribute to her warmth in his concert favourite "Grandma's Feather Bed".
At first he thought of being an architect, but he got drawn into the local folk scene in Los Angeles. Randy Sparks, of the New Christy Minstrels, suggested a change in name and "I chose Denver because my heart longed to live in the mountains". Denver nearly joined the Byrds but instead became part of the popular Chad Mitchell Trio, and in 1967, they recorded his composition, "Leavin' on a Jet Plane". Denver wrote it in Washington "not so much from feeling that way for someone, but from the longing of having someone to love". He soon did have someone to love, as he met Ann Martell and followed her on a skiing trip to Aspen. They were married later that year.
On the departure of Chad Mitchell, the Chad Mitchell Trio floundered and, through a series of misfortunes, Denver found himself with debts of $40,000. This put a strain on the marriage, which he articulated in "Goodbye Again". Fortunately for him, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" and the song became an international hit. His first solo album, Rhymes and Reasons, was released in 1969.
Even though he was unknown, John Denver was given a six-week television series on BBC2 in the early Seventies. The public warmed to his million- watt smile, his cowboy shirts, his granny glasses, his Dutch haircut, his valiant attempts at juggling and his catchphrase, "Far out". Sure he was a hippie, but he was one the whole family could enjoy.
In 1971 Denver had just completed, or so he thought, his album Poems, Prayers and Promises. He was giving a concert with Bill and Taffy Danoff, who played him a song they were writing, "Take Me Home, Country Roads". Denver finished it and asked RCA to add it to the album. The song reached No 2 in the United States, although it was a cover version by Olivia Newton- John that made the Top 10 in Britain.
By then living in Aspen, he wrote the idyllic "Starwood in Aspen", "Aspenglow" and his anthem, "Rocky Mountain High". It was a joyous song about how he had been born again in the summer of his 27th year. Denver's melodic, light voice was well suited to his songs which reflected his love of the mountains and his love of his wife. It was a contrast to the cynicism of urban songwriters like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Denver's songs were seen as naive, which was partly true - even when he felt depressed, his feelings emerged in another positive song, "Sunshine on my Shoulders".
Although Denver's albums sold in the UK, his singles failed to have the same success as in the United States, but this changed in 1974, when he released "Annie's Song". It topped the UK charts and then became an instrumental success for the classical flautist James Galway.
The Rocky Mountain hype went into operation when Denver split with his wife in 1975. They patched up their marriage, but eventually divorced in 1983. An album and a single, both called Seasons of the Heart (1982), captured the strain of the relationship. Denver then married Cassandra Delaney, who had sung backing vocals on his albums. Much to his surprise, as he considered himself sterile, they had a daughter, Jesse Belle.
Denver befriended the French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, and in 1975 he wrote a modern sea shanty about Cousteau's boat, "Calypso". He also worked with Frank Sinatra on television and in concert, and Sinatra commented, "It reminds me of what happened to me. Once again America has picked out a hero."
The relationship with Sinatra encapsulates what went wrong with Denver's career. He wrote many standards, but time and again, his songs were covered by middle-of-the-road entertainers rather than rock artists, so he lost his credibility. In Willy Russell's play One For The Road, the main character throws his wife's record collection out of the window with the cry, "I hate John Goldilocks Denver".
Whether this would have amused John Denver is open to question. He took himself seriously and he was not amused when Monty Python recorded "Farewell to John Denver" in 1981, in which Eric Idle as Denver was strangled by a boa constrictor. The offending track had to be removed from the Python album. He did, however, show his own aptitude for comedy in the film Oh God! (1977), in which George Burns as God chooses the sunshine boy to deliver his message to the world.
Denver formed his own record label, Windsong, in 1976, but by then the magic was beginning to fade. A duet of "Perhaps Love" with Placido Domingo made the UK Top 50 in 1981, while Denver and Emmylou Harris had an American success with "Wild Montana Skies" in 1983. He wrote his autobiography Take Me Home in 1994 and a two-CD set, The Rocky Mountain Collection, was issued in the UK last year.
Business economies being what they are, Denver switched to solo concerts without a group in recent years but he excelled with narrations like "The Ambulance Down In the Valley". Lacking a female singer to sing Olivia Newton-John's part in "Fly Away", he would ask the audience to join him. Playing at the Liverpool Empire in 1986, he spontaneously broke into a 15-minute medley of Beatles songs. "That wasn't very professional," he admitted, "but it sure was fun."
Denver founded an environmental group, Windstar, and visited Russia and China to discuss the preservation of the planet. He loved space exploration and applied, unsuccessfully, to be an astronaut. He sang about the 1986 space shuttle disaster in "Flying For Me".
John Denver will be remembered as a singer- songwriter who told us that life was perfect. And maybe that's no bad thing. As he said himself, "I'm a kind of Everyman. I epitomise America."
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