John Denver was 27 years old the summer he moved to Aspen, Colo., a place with which the then-emerging singer-songwriter — born Henry John Deutschendorf, the son of a U.S. Air Force officer — would one day become synonymous.
“The Rockies always resonated, and he always wanted to live here,” says G. Brown, director of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (Denver was its first inductee in 2011), who interviewed Denver multiple times during his tenure as a popular music journalist for the Denver Post. “When he got to the mountains he was happy — that’s all there is to it. That summer he camped a lot, and he got back to the things he loved most, the beauty of the land and the quiet of the wilderness, and how precious it was to him. The meteor shower that August was the best meteor shower that John, an amateur astronomer, had ever seen.”
It was this experience of “coming home” that formed the basis of “Rocky Mountain High,” Denver’s lyrical paean to the state, to its “silver clouds” and “the forest and the streams,” and the song that, per Brown, initiated him into the public consciousness when it landed at No. 9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973.
On Oct. 24, 17 years after his life was cut tragically short in a private plane crash over Monterey Bay, Calif., Denver will receive his posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and “Rocky Mountain High,” a campfire standard latent with themes of serenity and peace and the great outdoors (and adopted by Colorado in 2007 as one of its two state songs) will no doubt be on the minds of those celebrating his musical legacy.
“He was a troubadour,” says Brown of Denver, whose albums have since sold over 33 million copies. “He was a one of a kind talent. Never sang out of tune. He was a fantastic vocalist. When you listen to a record like ‘Sunshine on My Shoulder’ — the string arrangement, his vocal performance. He was just a phenomenal performer. It’s undeniable.”
Record companies were not quick to sign Denver whose acoustic style was fomented in the folk tradition of the mid-1960s when he came up through the Mitchell Trio, a group produced by the legendary Milt Okun, founder of Cherry Lane Music Publishing Co.
“Folk was over,” recalls Okun. “That was the feeling everyone had. So no one wanted to sign a folk singer, no matter how good. And John was turned down by every company I went to.”
But Harry Jenkins at RCA saw potential in Denver, and signed him to a four-album deal. (“That was unheard of in those days,” Okun says.)
The arrangement ultimately proved fortuitous for Denver, since the first three albums made little noise, with adequate sales at best. RCA also initiated the partnership between Denver and manager Jerry Weintraub.
“It had ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads,’ ” says Okun of “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” the auspicious fourth album that finally broke through and signaled the arrival of Denver on the pop music radar. “The song that really got to me was ‘Rhymes and Reasons.’ The lyric, of ‘the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers, their laughter and their loveliness would clear a cloudy day…’ just this young kid coming up with these poetic, powerful lines.”
Conversely, there was a circle of critics who famously dismissed Denver as “the Mickey Mouse of Pop” and “the Ronald Reagan of Rock,” but what bothered Denver most were not the naysayers themselves, but the way in which their insults affected his faithful fans.
“That’s aimed at diminishing not only me, but all the folks whose lives have been touched by my music,” Denver told Brown during their final interview. “I still meet people who use my songs in their weddings, who have played them while they are going through labor.”
“He could take the haters,” says Brown, “but he didn’t like that his fans were being diminished, and I always thought that was pretty cool.”
But Denver’s reach went far beyond that of a folk singer with granny glasses and shaggy blond hair. His finger firmly pressed on the hot button of social activism, Denver was a high-profile champion of the environment. Among his many philanthropic pursuits, he spearheaded an opposition movement to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and established the Windstar Foundation, a nonprofit education and demonstration center that studies alternative solutions to food production and energy.
Denver’s sunny charisma and passion for the land inspired countless people to move to Colorado and he campaigned heavily to protect its rugged, natural landscape.
“We were the flyover at that point,” says Brown of Colorado’s reputation in the pre-John Denver days. “The Broncos hadn’t yet put us on the map. There was Coors Beer, but that was pretty much it in Colorado. Then John came along and people began to discover the joys of the outdoors and nature. I’ve spoken to people from everywhere who became aware of Colorado through John’s music. ‘I’m from New Zealand,’ they’ll say. I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m from Colorado.’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh, John Denver!’”
But no matter the heights to which Denver’s popularity soared — he guest-hosted “The Tonight Show” on several occasions and hosted the Grammy Awards five times, not to mention his myriad appearances on “The Muppet Show” — he always remained a “country boy” at heart: humble, loyal and filled with gratitude.
“He was just a nice, gentle person,” says Jay Cooper, Denver’s attorney during the last few years of his life. “He wasn’t the type to force his personality on people. He was very easy, relaxed and always seemed to be enjoying himself and the people around him. He didn’t carry himself off as a star. You never felt like you needed to bow down or cater to him. He was creative and unique unto himself. He wasn’t a follower, nor was he one who jumped on the popular bandwagon of the day. He was a regular person.”