Because Denver's father was in the military, they family moved often, making it difficult for him to make friends. Constantly being the new kid was agony for him as he had become introverted. At the age of 11, Denver received an acoustic guitar from his grandmother and it became his best friend and it changed his life forever. If you’ve never heard the song he wrote called: “This Old Guitar” it’s beautiful. In his third year of high school, he borrowed (stole?) his father's car and ran away to California to visit family friends and begin his music career. His father flew to California to bring him back, and Denver unhappily returned to finish high school.
He learned to play well enough to perform at local clubs by the time he was in college. He attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock and sang in a folk-music group called "The Alpine Trio" while pursuing architecture studies. Denver dropped out of the Texas Tech School of Engineering and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he sang in clubs.
In 1969, John Denver released his first album for RCA Records: Rhymes & Reasons. Two years prior, Denver had made a self-produced demo recording of some of the songs he played when he’d perform in the clubs. He was run off of more than one sidewalk after a show while trying to sale his tapes. He included in the demo a song called "Babe I Hate to Go," later renamed "Leaving on A Jet Plane." The man who helped John produce his demo brought the unreleased "Jet Plane" song to Peter, Paul and Mary and their version of the song hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. This was a huge feather in his cap.
Although RCA did not actively promote Rhymes & Reasons with a tour, Denver himself embarked on an impromptu supporting tour throughout the Midwest, stopping at towns and cities offering to play free concerts at local venues. When he was successful in persuading a school, college, American Legion Hall, or local coffee-house to let him play, he would spend a day or so distributing posters in the town and could usually be counted upon to show up at the local radio station, guitar in hand, offering himself for an interview.
After several months of this constant low-key touring schedule he had sold enough albums to persuade RCA to take a chance on extending his recording contract. He had also built a sizable and solid fan base, many of whom remained loyal throughout his career. RCA didn’t know just how much to get behind him because he looked and sounded different. They didn’t know if there was a market for Denver but found out there was.
Denver’s career started taking off in 1971 as his albums became huge successes with number one hits like: Take Me Home Country Roads, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Sunshine on my Shoulders, Annie’s Song, I’m Sorry, etc. He had the signature look of long blonde hair, round glasses, and embroidered shirts and/or buckskin jackets. Like the Grateful Dead would experience years later, his fan base would travel for miles to hear him play.
Denver was a huge advocate for the environment. One of my favorite songs of his is “Calypso” which was the name of Jacques Cousteau’s boat. I can’t begin to cover the amount of his humanitarian projects but Aids and Hunger were some of his favorites.
He accomplished great things beyond music like his works with the Muppets and the movie “Oh, God” with George Burns. His annual variety Christmas shows on ABC were record breaking for them achieving up to 60 million viewers during one episode; about 10 times better than their average shows generate now. He hosted the Grammy Awards. The Olympic Committee asked him to write a theme song for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Because of his skiing prowess, ABC asked him to be a commentator for skiing events. He loved flying airplanes and was very involved in promoting NASA and their aerospace programs; he won the “NASA Public Service Medal” in 1985.
John Denver was married to his first wife Annie for around 14 years. He wrote the song “Annie” while riding on ski lifts during a ski outing. They adopted two children. Six years after Denver got a divorce from Annie he married an actress from Australia and they had a girl. They divorced after five years and John never remarried.
After all those years, Denver never moved from his home in Colorado. The last few years of his life he struggled with a drinking problem and was caught driving drunk a few times in his small community and was involved in a drunk driving case when he died.
At the age of 53, Denver crashed his plane into the Pacific Ocean due to mechanical problems. He was an accomplished pilot and could fly practically anything even a Lear Jet. He was flying a test aircraft at the time and was doing touch and goes at the Monterey Airport. This is where you don’t actually land the plane but instead you touch the runway with your wheels and immediately take off again. This is a required test in case a pilot attempts to land and sees something on the runway. He wasn’t supposed to be flying at the time because of a suspended license due to his alcohol problem but fortunately they didn’t find drugs or alcohol in his system when they found his body.
Here are some of Denver’s many accomplishments:
1) For 31 years straight he came out with an album. No one in the music industry has been this productive.
2) He wrote three books, one being his autobiography.
3) Album of the year for “Back Home Again.”
4) He was the AMA’s Pop/Rock Artist of the Year in 1975 and became Favorite Country Male Artist one year later and CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. A lot of people in the country music industry were mad about this because he wasn’t exactly seen as the typical country artist.
5) He won Emmy’s and Grammy’s and is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and Music Writer’s Hall of Fame. He’s also won awards for his poetry.
6) The last album he cut in 1997 was called: “All Aboard” and was geared towards children. It was a hit as well and he won another Grammy for it.
I didn’t cover a fraction of his accomplishments but I at least tried to remind you what a diverse superstar he was. His personal life wasn’t as great as he was a workaholic never spending enough time with his family to build good relationships. The tours and cutting one album a year gives us great insight into why he wasn’t around much. He wasn’t a wife’s dream but he was a record label’s dream.
I was a huge fan of John Denver’s and I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to Annie’s Song, Back Home Again, Grandma’s Feather Bed, Matthew, Sunshine on My Shoulders, This Old Guitar, etc. In a world filled with artists who all sound the same, I feel blessed to have been around to hear the unique sound of John Denver.