John Denver, the boyish, folk-rock star whose music infiltrated the farthest reaches of American pop culture in the 1970s, died when the experimental plane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean, officials said Monday. He was 53.
It took almost a day for police to confirm that the body pulled from the sea after the crash Sunday was that of Denver, and confirmation came only after his fingerprints were flown in from Colorado, where he maintained his chief residence.
The Monterey coroner’s office performed an autopsy Monday. Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were working to determine the cause of the crash.
Denver, named by Newsweek in 1976 as the most popular singer in America, reached the peak of his fame in the 1970s as a vocalist who moved between different styles of country, folk and pop music. Among his best-known songs were “Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Annie’s Song”; his label, RCA, honored his “Greatest Hits” album in 1981 for selling more than 10 million copies in the U.S.
Eight of Denver’s albums sold more than 1 million copies; six have gone gold. The staying power of Denver’s biggest hits was perhaps best exposed in a recent beer commercial in which a tavern full of drinkers sing “Rocky Mountain High,” more than two decades after it was a hit song.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in Roswell, N.M., on Dec. 31, 1943, Denver dropped out of school to pursue a career in folk music in Los Angeles, replacing Chad Mitchell as the lead singer in the Chad Mitchell Trio in 1965. His first big success, though, came as a songwriter, penning the million-selling “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969.
Although his debut album, “Take Me Tomorrow,” reached only No. 197 in 1970, a year later his single “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was a ubiquitous radio hit. “Country Roads” was taken from his “Poems, Prayers and Promises” album, which spent more than 80 weeks on the charts.
Denver’s 1972 album “Rocky Mountain High” paid tribute to his adopted home of Colorado and began his focus on songs about the environment, eventually leading to him being named Colorado poet laureate in 1974. In 1974 and ’75, Denver hit No. 1 on singles charts with “Sunshine on My Shoulders” (used by NBC sitcom “Sunshine” for its theme), “Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (which baseball’s Baltimore Orioles adopted as a theme) and “I’m Sorry”; he topped album charts with “Greatest Hits,” “Back Home Again” and “Windsong.”
Throughout the ’70s, Denver was active in television, earning the Outstanding Special Emmy for “An Evening with John Denver” in 1975. ABC aired his “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” special in ’77 and in ’78 he emceed the Grammy Awards ceremony. His appearance on the Muppets’ Christmas special lead to the million-seller “A Christmas Together” in late 1979. He continued to work in TV in the 1980s, highlights being his perf on Mount Sarajevo at the ’84 Olympics and “A Rocky Mountain Christmas” in 1987.
Denver starred with George Burns in the film “Oh, God” in 1977. His documentary about endangered species, “Rocky Mountain Reunion,” won several awards at film festivals and his TV co-production, “The Higher We Fly,” was honored by the Houston Film Festival.
Denver sang around the world, giving concerts in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam at a time when many Western stars did not make visits to the United States’ ideological enemies. In a tribute issued by the White House, President Clinton said Denver “opened many doors to understanding among nations through his tours.”
In the 1980s, Denver’s style of music took a back seat on the charts and although his releases were getting into the top 100, RCA dropped him from its roster in 1987. He remained a popular concert draw, however, until his death.
Once the hits dried up, however, Denver was entrenched in a myriad of outside projects, including aviation, photography, space exploration and world hunger. President Reagan appointed him to the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and he received commendations from NASA in 1985 and wildlife and ecology orgs in 1990.
Denver was married to his first wife, Annie, for 15 years. They adopted a boy and a girl but divorced in 1983. He had a daughter with his second wife, Cassandra, whom he married in 1988.
Denver was an experienced pilot who had flown the single-engine, ultra-light fiberglass plane many times and even used it to commute from Colorado to Monterey to visit his daughter, who lives in nearby Carmel.
(Reuters contributed to this report.)