A legendary artist whose love for the state of Colorado shines through the lyrics of his music, John Denver was a creative visionary and one of the most beloved singer-songwriters of his time. His imaginative mind and peaceful spirit still influence millions today through the legacy of his music.
Starting Out in the Music Industry
John Denver was born on New Year’s Eve 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. His father, “Dutch,” was a record-breaking pilot in the United States Air Force, and because he was born into a military family, young John lived in a number of places while growing up. His grandmother gave him his first guitar, and he got his first major break during an audition for the popular Chad Mitchell Trio. Chad Mitchell was leaving the group, and he was chosen as the new lead singer over 250 other hopefuls. Young Deutschendorf started writing songs at an early age and made demos of some of them, including a 1967 song he called “Babe, I Hate to Go.” In 1969, Peter, Paul & Mary, the most popular folk group of that decade, had their first and only No. 1 hit with a cover of Denver’s renamed “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” By then, Deutschendorf had chosen the new professional name of John Denver to honor what he said was his “favorite state, Colorado” and also because the newly named Mitchell Trio could not fit Deutschendorf on the marque. The Mitchell Trio morphed into Denver, Boise and Johnson (Michael Johnson, who wrote “Bluer Than Blue”) and disbanded in 1969.
Success as a Solo Artist
Less than two years later, Denver was zooming up the pop charts with “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the first of many hits. He soon became a household name with “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” “Back Home Again” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” The strength of Denver’s popularity was measured in record sales that few other artists have achieved, including eight platinum albums in the U.S. alone.
A cheerfully optimistic image marked Denver’s 1970s heyday, when he emerged as one of the five top-selling recording artists in the history of the music industry. Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, the couple who co-wrote Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” created the Starland Vocal Band, and the clean-cut, all-American group became the first act signed to Denver’s new Windsong label in 1975; “Afternoon Delight” was Windsong’s first and only No. 1 single.
Collaborations with Other Artists
Denver starred alongside celebrities as diverse as opera singer Beverly Sills, violinist Itzhak Perlman and flautist James Galway. Frank Sinatra was the “Friend” in Denver’s John Denver and Friend television special, and their back-to-back co-billing at Harrah’s Tahoe was one of the most sought-after tickets in the casino hotel’s history. Denver and Placido Domingo recorded “Perhaps Love,” a song written by Denver, as a duet, earning the Spanish tenor considerable recognition outside of the opera world.
Environmentalism and Humanitarianism
Due to his popularity, John Denver was given a platform to pursue his passions for environmental and humanitarian causes. He founded the Windstar Foundation in 1976 as an education and demonstration center dedicated to the creation of a sustainable future. He was known for his close friendship with Jacques Cousteau, the most famous underseas explorer of the 20th century; he wrote “Calypso” in 1975 as a tribute to Cousteau and his research boat of the same name, which sailed around the world for oceanic conservation.
Denver took his music beyond American shores, traveling to mainland China (where he was the first Western artist to do a multi-city tour) and the Soviet Union (the first time an artist had been invited to give public performances since the cultural exchange agreement expired in 1980), as well as Europe, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. His charitable activities included a trip to Africa to publicize the food crisis there, and act as spokesman for UNICEF’s fundraising drive.
Movies and the Muppets
When Denver guest-starred on The Muppet Show, he began a life-long friendship with Jim Henson that spawned two television specials with the Muppets ensemble. Denver’s movie debut alongside George Burns in the comedy Oh God! was a solid hit. He also starred and guest-starred in many television productions, including the seasonal special A Christmas Gift, filmed in the Rocky Mountains in 1986. He guest-hosted The Tonight Show on multiple occasions and hosted the Grammy Awards five times.
Denver was a photography buff for three decades, taking picture of people and places during his many tours around the country and abroad. Denver’s father had taught him how to fly, and their shared passion for flying brought them closer together. Denver, a licensed pilot, died at the age of 53 when his experimental aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean in October 1997.
John Denver & Colorado Tourism
John Denver’s effect on the world of music is felt the strongest in Colorado, where “Rocky Mountain High” is one of two official state songs. People from all over the world have fallen in love with the images he portrayed of the mountains and countryside surrounding his adopted state, and want to experience some of that beauty in person. John Denver fans can enjoy a variety of landmarks celebrating his life and career, including the Colorado Music Hall of Fame; Denver was the Hall’s first inductee in 2011.
Visit our website to learn more about the John Denver music exhibit and the musician’s inspiring life, as well as to see upcoming events on the CMHOF schedule for 2019.