Fans of laid-back county music were in shock 20 years ago today at news of the death in a plane crash of John Denver.
One of the most successful recording artists of the 1970s and ’80s, he had no fewer than 11 platinum albums and a series of hit singles including “Annie’s Song”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Rocky Mountain High” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane”.
Both his looks and the lyrics of his homespun songs, showcasing his voice and acoustic guitar playing, seemed to embody the wholesome outdoor country life of his adopted home in the Colorado mountains. Yet John Denver was actually born Henry John Deutschendorf Jnr in Roswell, New Mexico, the son of a US Army Air Force captain stationed there at the time.
His father’s role in the military meant the family moved often and the young John struggled to make friends, instead teaching himself to play the acoustic guitar he was given by his grandmother at the age of 11. By the time he was in college he was accomplished enough to play in local folk clubs, adopting the stage name of Denver because it was the capital of his favourite US state, Colorado.
He performed mostly folk standards, but also began writing and performing his own material. While studying architecture in Texas, he performed with a folk trio and found he enjoyed it so much that he dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, initially with another trio then going it alone as a solo artist.
His self-produced demo tapes caught the ear of an RCA Records producer who had one of the tracks – originally called “Babe I Hate to Go” – recorded by established folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. The song – later renamed “Leaving on a Jet Plane” – hit the number one spot in America and number two in the UK, giving RCA enough faith in Denver to record his own first album, “Rhymes and Reasons”.
With Denver still relatively unknown, RCA declined to market the album by funding a promotional tour. Undeterred, Denver decided to do it himself, travelling throughout the Midwest and stopping at low-key venues where he would offer to perform free shows in exchange for permission to sell copies of his album. He would also turn up unannounced at the local radio station and offer to perform live on air to promote the local concerts, steadily building a growing fanbase and selling enough copies of his debut album to persuade RCA to fund a second.
Released in 1971, “Poems, Prayers and Promises” would be his breakthrough in the US, largely because it contained the single “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, which went to number two in the charts and received extensive nationwide airplay. The following year his next album, “Rocky Mountain High”, hit the top 10 and Denver’s career continued to flourish, spawning a series of number one hit singles and albums.
By the mid-seventies John Denver was among America’s best-selling and most popular entertainers, regularly appearing on TV shows, where he seemed entirely at ease, leading to a number of other on-screen roles. Around this time, he also became more outspoken on ecological and environmental issues, which also featured in the lyrics of his songs.
Living in Aspen, Colorado, he was a keen ‘outdoorsman’ who especially enjoyed skiing. But his other passion, inherited from his pilot father, was flying and he steadily qualified to pilot various types of plane, including his own Leah jet which he used when touring. His wealth as a popular performer enabled him to build a collection of light aircraft, including several vintage biplanes, and he would fly whenever his schedule allowed.
In 1997 he bought an experimental Long-EZ single engined plane which had been built by someone else from a kit. He had been unhappy with the positioning of some of the controls, especially a hard-to-reach lever for switching from one fuel tank to the other, and was working with a mechanic to make improvements, taking test flights to check their effectiveness.
It was during one such flight, on October 12th, 1997, that Denver, flying alone, appeared to lose control and crashed into Monterey Bay, near Pacific Cove, California. At the time, Denver was not legally permitted to fly, due to a number of convictions for drink-driving, but an autopsy showed no signs of alcohol or other drugs in his body. Investigations into the wreckage suggested he had run out of fuel and lost control while attempting to switch to the second fuel tank
News of his tragic death, at the age of just 53, left his worldwide army of fans devastated, but his music lives on and remains very popular. To date he has sold more than 33 million records, a large proportion of those sales since his untimely death.