The unassuming US singer-songwriter and activist John Denver wrote some of folk and country’s biggest hits, but was a one-hit wonder in the UK, where he scored the number 1 spot with this tender tribute to his first wife.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on New Year’s Eve 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, his father was a stern US Army Air Forces pilot who had difficulty showing his children emotion, and it made his eldest son introverted, as did the constant moving around due to his father’s job. Deutschendorf Jr. was shy to mix with others, but loved music and became a member of Tuscon Arizona Boys Chorus. However, that was cut short when forced to move once more and he disliked ending up in a segregated school in Montgomery, Alabama.
At college he began playing the guitar at local clubs, having been bought one by his grandmother when he was 11. When it was pointed out to him that his surname was rather unwieldy for showbiz purposes, he became John Denver, paying tribute the capital of Colorado, his favourite state. Denver joined a folk group called The Alpine Trio but dropped out of the Texas Tech School of Engineering in 1963 and moved to Los Angeles. In 1965 he joined The Mitchell Trio when founder Chad Mitchell left. A year later he recorded a demo tape of his own material for friends as a Christmas present called John Denver Sings. Among the songs was Babe, I Hate to Go. Producer Milt Okun was impressed and took it to Peter, Paul and Mary, who recorded it for an album but changed the name to Leaving on a Jet Plane.
In 1969 Denver signed with RCA Records and recorded his debut solo LP, Rhymes & Reasons. Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of Leaving on a Jet Plane was released as a single and it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and reached number two in the UK in 1970. That year he released two albums, Take Me to Tomorrow and Whose Garden Was This.
1971 brought Denver’s breakthrough when his album Poems, Prayers & Promises contained the track Take Me Home, Country Roads. This country classic narrowly missed out on the US top spot, but Denver was on the road to fame, and the hits increased in America. Rocky Mountain High reached the top 10 in 1973, and between 1974-75 Denver had four number 1s there – Sunshine on My Shoulders, Annie’s Song, Thank God I’m a Country Boy and I’m Sorry. Despite his shyness, the image of his embroidered shirts, long hair and granny glasses stood out, making him resemble a more polite, American version of John Lennon.
Annie’s Song was written, according to Denver himself, in 10-and-a-half minutes one day on a ski lift to the top of Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Colorado in July 1973. Exhilarated after skiing a difficult run, Denver’s senses came alive with the immersion of the colours and sounds around him, and they inspired him to think of his then-wife, Annie. He got home and wrote it all down, then later presented it to Okun, who pointed out the tune was similar to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. An hour later all that remained the same were the first five notes.
Sure, Annie’s Song is a very pretty melody, and Denver’s voice has a charm, but it’s never done much for me. Rather like Don McLean’s Vincent, the intro is very strong, but it’s downhill from there. ‘You fill up my senses’ is a great lyric, but the subsequent outpouring of comparisons doesn’t hold the attention. Denver would have been better off spending more time on the words – they’re cliched and ultimately lack a personal touch, but such Hallmark-style writing was popular among the more conservative, old-fashioned singles buyers of the mid-70s, so it was perhaps inevitable this would reach number 1 in the same year as She.
Denver’s manager Jerry Weintraub insisted the singer appear on as many TV shows as possible, despite his reticence, particularly in the UK, where he was much less well-known. Back home though, he won an Emmy for a live concert special in 1975. That December, Rocky Mountain Christmas became ABC’s highest-rated programme up to that point, with an astounding 60 million viewers. He is also remembered fondly for his appearance on The Muppet Show, even here in the UK. He also acted, starring in the film Oh, Boy! (1977) alongside comedian George Burns, hosted the Grammy Awards five times and appeared on The Tonight Show numerous times.
Denver’s music may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but his political leanings were sound. In the mid-70s he supported Jimmy Carter and they became close friends when he became president, even appointing Denver to serve on the President’s Commission on World Hunger. He founded the Windstar Foundation in 1976 to promote sustainable living, and did work for the poor, the homeless and African AIDS charities over the years.
As the hits dried up towards the end of the 70s, Denver spent much of the next decade becoming more heavily involved in politics. Despite being a critic of Ronald Reagan’s administration, Reagan awarded him the Presidential World Without Hunger Award in 1987. Five years earlier, he had finally had enough of Weintrauub’s interference and sacked him. His ex-manager accused him of being a Nazi. Little bit over-the-top and very wrong by all accounts. Despite all his charity work, he was turned down when he asked to appear on 1985 chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, We Are the World. According to its producer Ken Kragen, this was because many involved, but not he, believed Denver’s image would harm the song’s credibility.
In the mid-70s Dever reconciled with his father, and he helped him learn to fly, beginning his obsession that would ultimately be the death of him. Spookily, he would have potentially died even sooner had he got his wish of being the first citizen to go into space courtesy of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Despite the tragic explosion, Denver continued to support NASA and obsessed about space, even reportedly entering discussions with the Soviet Union (where he had been the first US musician to perform in more than 10 years) with the hope of buying a place on one of their flights. Once the talks reached a possible $20 million price tag, Denver backed down.
Denver released his autobiography, Take Me Home, in 1994, in which he revealed some facts that went totally against his nice guy image, including drug use, drunk driving and domestic violence. After divorcing Annie in 1982, the woman who had filled up his senses, he found out she’d cut down some trees he liked. As revenge, he showed up at her place, shredded her furniture with a power saw, then proceeded to choke her. Pretty terrible stuff. His second marriage only lasted five years, ending in 1993.
On 12 October 1997 Denver died from multiple blunt force trauma when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California. He wasn’t legally allowed to fly due to his drunk driving arrests, but his autopsy found no drugs or drink in his body. Denver was 53.
In 1978, four years after Denver had his only UK number 1, the Belfast-born flute player James Galway scored his only chart hit with his cover of Annie’s Song.
Written by: John Denver
Producer: Milt Okun
Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 October)
Actor Matthew Macfadyen – 17 October
16 October: Rioting prisoners set fire to Belfast’s Maze Prison.