357. John Denver – Annie’s Song (1974)

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)

Births:

Actor Matthew Macfadyen – 17 October

Meanwhile…

16 October: Rioting prisoners set fire to Belfast’s Maze Prison.

352. Charles Aznavour – She (Theme from the TV Series ‘Seven Faces of Woman’) (1974)

French singer-songwriter, actor and activist Charles Aznavour was one of the country’s most beloved entertainers for decades. He was considered their very own Frank Sinatra, with a unique tenor that was quintessentially Gallic. It took the theme of a ITV series for him to score a UK number 1.

He was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian in Paris on 22 May 1924. His parents were poor Armenian immigrants that had fled their country to escape the Turkish massacres, and both had ambitions to be in showbusiness, so they encouraged their son from an early age. He learned to act, dance and play the violin, and left school at nine, taking the stage name ‘Charles Aznavour’. During the Second World War he and his family hid Armenians and Jews, risking their own lives in the process.

In 1944 he joined singer and actor Pierre Roche in a nightclub act and gained experience in writing lyrics. When the war was over and his country liberated, they toured with Edith Piaf, playing at the Moulin Rouge. It was she that helped him develop his distinctive voice. When Roche married, Aznavour decided to go it alone.

He began writing songs for Piaf and others, and in the 50s became a name in his own right in France, and then internationally. Film roles came too, including  appeared in films such as Les Dragueurs (Young Have No Morals) in 1959. He was famous enough to appear as himself in Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus) a year later.

In the 60s Aznavour sold out Carnegie Hall and thanks to being multilingual would sing at venues around the world in native languages. He wrote thousands of songs, and musicals, and starred in US and British films including Candy (1968) and And Then There Were None (1974). Never forgetting how it felt to be persecuted, in 1972 he recorded Comme ils disent (As They Say), which dealt with homosexuality (‘Nobody has the right to be/The judge of what is right for me’).

He co-wrote She with long-time collaborator and English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, later to write the English words to Les Misérables. The LWT series Seven Faces of a Woman has long since been forgotten while it’s theme has endured, but it was a seven-part anthology drama series depicting contemporary women at various stages of life. A love song by Aznavour, in which he celebrates the fairer sex, was bound to help the profile of the series and fit beautifully.

She is cheesy, in a ‘Hallmark card for Valentine’s Day’ way, but I found myself warming to it over the years. Am I getting soft in my old age?The Brits (used) to love a bit of European ‘sophistication’ and obviously, Aznavour fits our stereotype of the French and their love of romance. He’s like a less sleazy Serge Gainsbourg. But one thing’s for sure, after reading those lyrics, and all the possibilities Aznavour runs through in his head when wondering about ‘She’, you get the impression he wouldn’t be much good on Tinder. He’d spend an age wondering about every profile before deciding which way to swipe. I’ll admit to not being familiar with Aznavour’s music, but I’d put money on there being better work out there then She. Is this his Strangers in the Night?

She performed best in the UK, thanks to Seven Faces of Woman, probably, as the series wasn’t aired elsewhere. He recorded versions of the song in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

The diminutive chanson continued to perform worldwide, and earned the respect and admiration of fellow singers, many of whom recorded covers of his work. These artists include Sinatra (one of the few European singers invited to duet with him), Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Liza Minnelli (they had a brief affair), Bob Dylan (who was awestruck when he saw Aznavour perform), Elton John, Tom Jones and Marc Almond, who Aznavour noted as his personal favourite interpreter of his work. He also delved into the classical world, performing with tenors Luciano Pavarotti and close friend Plácido Domingo.

Although his film career came second, he had some notable roles, including Shoot the Piano Player (1960), And Then There Were None (1974) and The Tin Drum (1979), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1980.

Aznavour turned 82 into 2005, and announced his next tour would be his last. It lasted until 2018, with his final performance taking place at the NHK Hall of Osaka in Japan on 19 September 2018. He had continued to record throughout this time, releasing Duos, an album of celebrity duets in 2008.

Aznavour also continued to be an activist all his life. In 2010 he recorded Un Geste pour Haiti Chérie, a song with young French rap stars, to help raise money after the earthquake in Haiti. He became more involved in politics as he grew older, opposing France’s National Front

After he was found dead in his bathtub from cardiorespiratory arrest on 1 October 2018, aged 94, France went into mourning and gave one of their most famous exports a state funeral. Although small in stature, Aznavour was a giant of music, and he deserved no less.

Elvis Costello covered She for the soundtrack to the romantic comedy Notting Hill in 1999, where it was used over the closing credits.

Written by: Charles Aznavour & Herbert Kretzmer

Producer: Barclay Records

Arranged by: Del Newman

Weeks at number 1: 4 (29 June-26 July)

Births:

Comedian David Mitchell – 14 July
Actress Maxine Peake – 14 July

Deaths:

Novelist Georgette Heyer – 4 July
Nobel Prize laureate physicist Patrick Blackett – 13 July
Nobel Prize laureate physicist James Chadwick – 24 July

Meanwhile…

3 July: Don Revie, manager of Football League champions Leeds United since 1961, accepts the Football Association’s £200,000-a-year deal to become the new manager of England.

12 July: Bill Shankly, stuns his team, FA Cup holders Liverpool, by announcing his retirement after 15 years. He had transformed them into one of the world’s top club sides with three top division titles, two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup win.

17 July: The IRA wage more terror, with a bomb exploding in the White Tower at the Tower of London, killing one person and injuring 41. Another explodes outside a government building in South London.

20 July: Leeds United appoint Brian Clough as their new manager.

21 July: 10,000 Greek-Cypriots protest in London against the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. 

26 July: Liverpool appoint Bob Paisley as their new manager.