Monday June 7, 2021’s Smile of the Day: John Denver

On this Day:

In 1975, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” sung by John Denver, hit #1.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (December 31, 1943 – October 12, 1997), known professionally as John Denver, was an American singer-songwriter, record producer, actor, activist, and humanitarian, whose greatest commercial success was as a solo singer. After traveling and living in numerous locations while growing up in his military family, Denver began his music career with folk music groups during the late 1960s. Starting in the 1970s, he was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the decade and one of its best-selling artists. By 1974, he was one of America’s best-selling performers; AllMusic has called Denver “among the most beloved entertainers of his era”.

Denver recorded and released approximately 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed. He had 33 albums and singles that were certified Gold and Platinum in the U.S by the RIAA, with estimated sales of more than 33 million units. He recorded and performed primarily with an acoustic guitar and sang about his joy in nature, disdain for city life, enthusiasm for music, and relationship trials. Denver’s music appeared on a variety of charts, including country music, the Billboard Hot 100, and adult contemporary, earning 12 gold and four platinum albums with his signature songs “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Poems, Prayers and Promises “Annie’s Song”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Calypso”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, and “Sunshine on My Shoulders”.

Denver appeared in several films and television specials during the 1970s and 1980s, including the 1977 hit Oh, God!, in which he starred alongside George Burns. He continued to record into the 1990s, also focusing on environmental issues as well as lending vocal support to space exploration and testifying in front of Congress to protest censorship in music. He lived in Aspen for much of his life, and he was known for his love of Colorado. In 1974, Denver was named poet laureate of the state. The Colorado state legislature also adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as one of its two state songs in 2007, and West Virginia did the same for “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in 2014.

An avid pilot, Denver died at age 53 in a single-fatality crash while piloting a recently purchased light plane.

At age 11, Denver received an acoustic guitar from his grandmother. He learned to play well enough to perform at local clubs by the time he was in college. He adopted the surname ‘Denver’ after the capital of his favorite state, Colorado. He decided to change his name when Randy Sparks, founder of the New Christy Minstrels, suggested that ‘Deutschendorf’ would not fit comfortably on a marquee. Denver attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock and sang in a folk-music group, ‘the Alpine Trio’, while studying architecture. He was also a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Denver dropped out of Texas Tech in 1963 and moved to Los Angeles, where he sang in folk clubs. In 1965, he joined the Mitchell Trio, replacing founder Chad Mitchell. After more personnel changes, the trio later became known as ‘Denver, Boise, and Johnson’ (John Denver, David Boise, and Michael Johnson).

In 1969, Denver abandoned band life to pursue a solo career and released his first album for RCA Records, Rhymes & Reasons. Two years earlier, he had made a self-produced demo recording of some of the songs he played at his concerts. It included a song he had written called “Babe, I Hate to Go”, later renamed “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. Denver made several copies and gave them out as presents for Christmas. Producer Milt Okun, who produced records for the Mitchell Trio and the high-profile folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, had become Denver’s producer as well. Okun brought the unreleased “Jet Plane” song to Peter, Paul and Mary. Their version of the song hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Denver’s song also made it to No. 2 in the UK in February 1970, having also made No. 1 on the US Cash Box chart in December 1969.

RCA did not actively promote Rhymes & Reasons with a tour, but Denver embarked on an impromptu supporting tour throughout the Midwest, stopping at towns and cities as the fashion took him, offering to play free concerts at local venues. When he was successful in persuading a school, college, American Legion hall, or coffeehouse to let him play, he distributed posters in the town and usually showed up at the local radio station, guitar in hand, offering himself for an interview. With his foot in the door as writer of “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, he was often successful in gaining some promotional airtime, usually featuring one or two songs performed live. Some venues let him play for the ‘door’; others restricted him to selling copies of the album at intermission and after the show. 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.

Denver recorded two more albums in 1970, Take Me to Tomorrow and Whose Garden Was This, including a mix of songs he had written and cover versions of other artists’ compositions.

Denver’s next album, Poems, Prayers & Promises (1971), was a breakthrough for him in the US, thanks in part to the single “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, which went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts despite the first pressings of the track being distorted. Its success was due in part to the efforts of his new manager, future Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, who signed Denver in 1970. Weintraub insisted on a reissue of the track and began a radio airplay campaign that started in Denver, Colorado. Denver’s career flourished thereafter, and he had a series of hits over the next four years. In 1972, he scored his first Top Ten album with Rocky Mountain High, with its title track reaching the Top Ten in 1973. In 1974 and 1975, Denver experienced an impressive chart dominance, with a string of four No. 1 songs (“Sunshine on My Shoulders”, “Annie’s Song”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, and “I’m Sorry”) and three No. 1 albums (John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Back Home Again, and Windsong).

In the 1970s, Denver’s onstage appearance included long blond hair and ‘granny’ glasses. His embroidered shirts emblazoned with images commonly associated with the American West were created by the designer and appliqué artist Anna Zapp. Weintraub insisted on a significant number of television appearances, including a series of half-hour shows in the United Kingdom, despite Denver’s protests at the time, “I’ve had no success in Britain…I mean none”. In December 1976, Weintraub told Maureen Orth of Newsweek: ‘I knew the critics would never go for John. I had to get him to the people.’

After appearing as a guest on many shows, Denver hosted his own variety and music specials, including several concerts from Red Rocks Amphitheatre. His seasonal special, Rocky Mountain Christmas, was watched by more than 60 million people and was the highest-rated show for the ABC network at that time.

His live concert special, An Evening with John Denver, won the 1974–75 Emmy for Outstanding Special, Comedy-Variety or Music. When Denver ended his business relationship in 1982 because of Weintraub’s focus on other projects, Weintraub threw Denver out of his office and accused him of Nazism. Denver later told Arthur Tobier, when the latter transcribed his autobiography, “I’d bend my principles to support something he wanted of me. And of course, every time you bend your principles – whether because you don’t want to worry about it, or because you’re afraid to stand up for fear of what you might lose – you sell your soul to the devil”.

Denver was also a guest star on The Muppet Show, the beginning of the lifelong friendship between Denver and Jim Henson that spawned two Christmas television specials with the Muppets. He also tried acting, appearing in “The Colorado Cattle Caper” episode of the McCloud television movie in February 1974. He starred in the 1977 film Oh, God! opposite George Burns. Denver hosted the Grammy Awards five times in the 1970s and 1980s, and guest-hosted The Tonight Show on multiple occasions. In 1975, he was awarded the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award. At the ceremony, the outgoing Entertainer of the Year, Charlie Rich, presented the award to his successor after he set fire to the envelope containing the official notification of the award. Some speculated Rich was protesting the selection of a non-traditional country artist for the award, but Rich’s son disputes that, saying his father was drunk, taking pain medication for a broken foot, and just trying to be funny. Denver’s music was defended by country singer Kathy Mattea, who told Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly: ‘A lot of people write him off as lightweight, but he articulated a kind of optimism, and he brought acoustic music to the forefront, bridging folk, pop, and country in a fresh way…People forget how huge he was worldwide.’

In 1977, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project with Werner Erhard and Robert W. Fuller. He served for many years and supported the organization until his death. President Jimmy Carter appointed Denver to serve on the President’s Commission on World Hunger, writing the song “I Want to Live” as its theme song. In 1979, Denver performed “Rhymes & Reasons” at the Music for UNICEF Concert. Royalties from the concert performances were donated to UNICEF. His father taught him to fly in the mid-1970s, which led to their reconciliation. In 1980, Denver and his father, by then a lieutenant colonel, co-hosted an award-winning television special, The Higher We Fly: The History of Flight. It won the Osborn Award from the Aviation/Space Writers’ Association, and was honored by the Houston Film Festival.

In the mid-1970s, Denver became outspoken in politics. He expressed his ecologic interests in the epic 1975 song “Calypso”, an ode to the eponymous exploration ship used by environmental activist Jacques Cousteau. In 1976, he campaigned for Carter, who became a close friend and ally. Denver was a supporter of the Democratic Party and of a number of charitable causes for the environmental movement, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, and the African AIDS crisis. He founded the charitable Windstar Foundation in 1976 to promote sustainable living. His dismay at the Chernobyl disaster led to precedent-setting concerts in parts of communist Asia and Europe.

During the 1980s, Denver was critical of the Reagan administration and remained active in his campaign against hunger, for which Reagan awarded Denver the Presidential World Without Hunger Award in 1987. Denver’s criticism of the conservative politics of the 1980s was expressed in his autobiographical folk-rock ballad “Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?)”. In an open letter to the media, he wrote that he opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Denver had battled to expand the refuge in the 1980s, and he praised President Bill Clinton for his opposition to the proposed drilling. The letter, which he wrote in the midst of the 1996 United States presidential election, was one of the last he ever wrote. Denver was also on the National Space Society’s board of governors for many years.

Denver had a few more US Top 30 hits as the 1970s ended, but nothing to match his earlier success. He began to focus more on humanitarian and sustainability causes, focusing extensively on conservation projects. He made public expression of his acquaintances and friendships with ecological design researchers such as Richard Buckminster Fuller (about whom he wrote and composed “What One Man Can Do”) and Amory Lovins, from whom he said he learned much. He also founded the environmental group Plant-It 2020 (originally Plant-It 2000). Denver had a keen interest in solutions to world hunger. He visited Africa during the 1980s to witness firsthand the suffering caused by starvation and work with African leaders toward solutions.

From 1973 to at least 1979, Denver annually performed at the yearly fundraising picnic for the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf, raising half of the camp’s annual operating budget. During the Aspen Valley Hospital’s $1.7 million capital campaign in 1979, Denver was the largest single donor.

In 1983 and 1984, Denver hosted the annual Grammy Awards. In the 1983 finale, Denver was joined on stage by folk music legend Joan Baez, with whom he led an all-star version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Let the Sunshine In”, joined by such diverse musical icons as Jennifer Warnes, Donna Summer, and Rick James.

In 1984, ABC Sports president Roone Arledge asked Denver to compose and sing the theme song for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Denver worked as both a performer and a skiing commentator, as skiing was another of his passions. He composed “The Gold and Beyond”, and sang it for the Olympic Games athletes, as well as local venues including many schools.

In 1985, Denver asked to participate in the singing of “We Are the World”, but was turned down. According to Ken Kragen (who helped to produce the song), Denver was turned down because many people felt his image would hurt the credibility of the song as a pop-rock anthem. ‘I didn’t agree’ with this assessment, Kragen said, but he reluctantly turned Denver down anyway.

For Earth Day 1990, Denver was the on-camera narrator of a well-received environmental television program, In Partnership With Earth, with then–EPA Administrator William K. Reilly.

Due to his love of flying, he was attracted to NASA and became dedicated to America’s work in outer space. He conscientiously worked to help bring into being the ‘Citizens in Space’ program. In 1985 Denver received the NASA Public Service Medal for “helping to increase awareness of space exploration by the peoples of the world”, an award usually restricted to spaceflight engineers and designers. Also in 1985, he passed NASA’s rigorous physical exam and was in line for a space flight, a finalist for the first citizen’s trip on the Space Shuttle in 1986. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, Denver dedicated his song “Flying for Me” to all astronauts, and continued to support NASA. He entered discussions with the Soviet space program about purchasing a flight aboard one of their rockets. The talks fell through after the price tag was rumored to be as high as $20 million.

Denver testified before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on the topic of censorship during a Parents Music Resource Center hearing in 1985. Contrary to his innocuous public image as a musician, Denver openly stood with more controversial witnesses like Frank Zappa and Dee Snider of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister in opposing the PMRC’s objectives. For instance, Denver described how he was censored for “Rocky Mountain High”, which was misconstrued as a drug song.

Denver also toured Russia in 1985. His eleven concerts in the USSR were the first by any American artist in more than 10 years. He returned two years later to perform at a benefit concert for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

In October 1992, Denver undertook a multiple-city tour of the People’s Republic of China. He also released a greatest-hits CD, Homegrown, to raise money for homeless charities. In 1994, he published his autobiography, Take Me Home, in which he candidly spoke of his cannabis, LSD, and cocaine use, marital infidelities, and history of domestic violence. In 1996, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 1997, Denver filmed an episode for the television series Nature, centering on the natural wonders that inspired many of his best-loved songs. His last song, “Yellowstone, Coming Home”, composed while rafting along the Colorado River with his son and young daughter, is included. In the summer of 1997, shortly before his death, Denver recorded a children’s train album for Sony Wonder, All Aboard!, produced by longtime friend Roger Nichols. The album consisted of old-fashioned swing, big band, folk, bluegrass, and gospel music woven into a theme of railroad songs. It won a posthumous Best Musical Album For Children Grammy, Denver’s only Grammy. His final concert was held in Corpus Christi, Texas, at the Selena Auditorium on October 5.

Denver died on the afternoon of October 12, 1997, when his light homebuilt aircraft, a Rutan Long-EZ with registration number N555JD, crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California, while making a series of touch-and-go landings at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport. He was the plane’s only occupant. The official cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma resulting from the crash.

Denver was a pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience. He had pilot ratings for single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider and instrument. He also held a type rating in his Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft, made by someone else from a kit, and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before his accident.

Denver was not legally permitted to fly at the time of the crash. In previous years, he had several arrests for drunk driving. In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the FAA learned that Denver had failed to maintain sobriety by not refraining entirely from alcohol and revoked his medical certification. The accident was not influenced by alcohol use; an autopsy found no sign of alcohol or other drugs in Denver’s body.

Post-accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) showed that the leading cause of the accident was Denver’s inability to switch fuel tanks during flight. The quantity of fuel had been depleted during the plane’s flight to Monterey and in several brief practice takeoffs and landings Denver performed at the airport immediately before the final flight. His newly purchased amateur-built Rutan aircraft had an unusual fuel tank selector valve handle configuration. The handle had originally been intended by the plane’s designer to be between the pilot’s legs. The builder instead put it behind the pilot’s left shoulder. The fuel gauge was also placed behind the pilot’s seat and was not visible to the person at the controls. An NTSB interview with the aircraft mechanic servicing Denver’s plane revealed that he and Denver had discussed the inaccessibility of the cockpit fuel selector valve handle and its resistance to being turned.

Before the flight, Denver and the mechanic had attempted to extend the reach of the handle using a pair of Vise-Grip pliers, but this did not solve the problem, and the pilot still could not reach the handle while strapped into his seat. NTSB officials’ post-accident investigation showed that because of the fuel selector valves’ positioning, switching fuel tanks required the pilot to turn his body 90 degrees to reach the valve. This created a natural tendency to extend one’s right foot against the right rudder pedal to support oneself while turning in the seat, which caused the aircraft to yaw (nose right) and pitch up.

The mechanic said that he told Denver that the fuel sight gauges were visible only to the rear cockpit occupant. Denver had asked how much fuel was shown. He told Denver that there was “less than half in the right tank and less than a quarter in the left tank”. He then provided Denver with an inspection mirror so he could look over his shoulder at the fuel gauges. The mirror was later recovered in the wreckage. Denver said that he would use the autopilot in flight to hold the airplane level while he turned the fuel selector valve. He turned down an offer to refuel, saying that he would be flying for about an hour.

The NTSB interviewed 20 witnesses about Denver’s last flight. Six of them had seen the plane crash into the bay near Point Pinos. Four said the aircraft was originally heading west. Five said that they saw the plane in a steep bank, with four saying that the bank was to the right (north). Twelve described seeing the aircraft in a steep nose-down descent. Witnesses estimated the plane’s altitude between 350 and 500 feet (110 and 150 m) when heading toward the shoreline. Eight said they heard a “pop” or “backfire” accompanied by a reduction in the engine noise level just before the plane crashed into the sea.

In addition to Denver’s failing to refuel and his subsequent loss of control while attempting to switch fuel tanks, the NTSB determined other key factors that led to the accident. Foremost among these was his inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft and the builder’s decision to put the fuel selector handle in a hard-to-reach place. The board issued recommendations on the requirement and enforcement of mandatory training standards for pilots operating home-built aircraft. It also emphasized the importance of mandatory ease of access to all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Following the death of John Denver, thousands of Coloradans have signed a petition to have one of the twin peaks of  Mount Sopris named after singer John Denver.  Others have objected, saying the twin peaks should be named after another singer:  Dolly Parton.   

Second, a Song:

“Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, also known as “Country Boy”, is a song written by John Martin Sommers and recorded by American singer/songwriter John Denver. The song was originally included on Denver’s 1974 album Back Home Again. A version recorded live on August 26, 1974, at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles was included on his 1975 album An Evening with John Denver. The live version was released as a single and went to No. 1 on both the Billboard magazine Hot Country Singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts. The song topped both charts for one week each, first the country chart (on May 31), and the Hot 100 chart a week later. Thank God I’m a Country Boy also became the name of a variety special show hosted by Denver in 1977.

“Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was one of six songs released in 1975 that topped both the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard Hot Country Singles charts. Denver’s two-sided hit “I’m Sorry”/”Calypso” also received that distinction (per Wikipedia).

Here is John Denver performing a live version of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”.  Not too often you will see Johnny Cash (guitar), Roger Miller (fiddle) and Glen Campbell (banjo) as a backup band. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“I would so much like young people to have a sense of the gift that they are. Not many of them feel like that.” – John Denver

Further to the Eruption of Mount Tambora Smile , Dr. Frank Fowlie of Richmond, BC, Canada writes:

“Great story.  Best regards, Frank”

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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