John Denver

John Denver

“And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high,
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky,
I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly,
Rocky Mountain high…”

John Denver loved all things green, from the forests in his beloved Colorado mountain-scape to his frequent duet partner, Kermit the Frog. He was a skilled songwriter with fourteen gold records to his credit, and though his folk music might seem uniquely American, he was incredibly popular around the globe. The 70’s certainly wouldn’t have been the same without him, and it’s hard to imagine Christmas without his TV specials.

Thanks to a Gibson acoustic guitar that his grandma gave him (we should all have grandmas that hip), he was bitten by the music bug at a young age. He played in local clubs while attending college in Texas, and adopted the last name “Denver” (his family name was the not so-stage-friendly “Deutschendorf) and he had always loved things Rocky Mountain-related. In 1964, he moved out west to Los Angeles where the sun shined on him indeed. He joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, chosen out of 250 other aspiring vocalists; and Peter, Paul and Mary sang his “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which became their first #1 hit.

Denver’s songwriting skill now established, it wasn’t long before his vocalizing was as well. In 1969, he flexed his solo muscles on his debut LP, Rhymes and Reasons. A couple of albums later, Poems, Prayers and Promises, and its hit single “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (later a hit for Olivia Newton-John) made him a star. Songs like “I’d Rather Be a Cowboy,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Annie’s Song” (written for his wife, and penned on a ski lift, as the story goes) only firmed that star status up. Many of his songs celebrated the beauty of the natural world, and in those years, when environmental concerns were just starting to make headlines, he became a sort of spokesperson.

Denver was obviously a recording superstar through the 1970’s, and soon reigned over television as well. Rocky Mountain Christmas and John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together became holiday standards. And in terms of non-puppets, he sang with the likes of Placido Domingo, Julie Andrews and Beverly Sills. For his film debut in 1977, he starred opposite George Burns in the Carl Reiner-directed Oh God! His record label Windsong parented hits like the Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.” In the 70s, suffice to say, John had a Midas touch.

Denver’s unexpected and gigantic international success definitely garnered some attention. He was invited to the still-Communist Soviet Union in 1984, one of the first artists to perform since cultural exchanges between that country and the U.S. were banned years before. He went back years later for a Chernobyl benefit concert after that city’s nuclear disaster. He was the first to tour China, in 1992, where devoted fans knew all the words to his songs. And two years after that (to a decidedly less responsive crowd unfortunately), he was the first post-war artist to perform in Vietnam.

Denver was also a respected photographer whose shows, largely nature and wildlife-based, were exhibited all over the country. He devoted himself not only to the environment, but also to global issues like hunger, and to this end, he became a UNICEF spokesperson. He was an avid flyer of small craft airplanes and consummately interested in space travel.

Sadly, tragedy struck in October of 1997, when after he had played a round of golf, Denver piloted an experimental plane in Monterey, California and crashed into the ocean, perishing instantly.

Thankfully, his legacy continues to this day. In 2007, Colorado adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as one of two official state songs in tribute to the man whose love of the region knew no bounds. His music remains popular in America and around the world, and his Christmas specials from the 70s are fondly remembered by millions. He was a simple man who loved the world around him and, as it turns out, the feeling was mutual.

If you were a fan of John Denver back in the day, either of his music or his holiday televison specials, we’d love to hear your memories in our comments section below.

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