John Denver was a hugely successful singer-songwriter, environmental activist and humanitarian who achieved global fame in the 1970s and on into the 80s. His songs have been covered by artists as varied as Peter, Paul & Mary, Olivia Newton-John, Ray Charles, James Galway and Barry Manilow. This month we bring you a recording of one of his shows in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on 10th December 1987. It’s a solo performance with a varied and multi-faceted set which mixes his hits with some less well-known material.
Denver’s music is characterised by strongly melodic songs, sung in a warm, yet powerful voice which remained impressive in its range and emotive heft throughout his career. His musical style was acoustic-based Folkie singer-songwriting, laced with strong elements of Country, frequently sweetened with rich orchestration - easy on the ear, yet also frequently informed by a strong political consciousness. In 1976, he backed the successful presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, and was vocal in his criticism of nuclear arms proliferation, which at times no doubt jarred with much of the beliefs of his core audience.
His considerable success – including two Grammy Awards, and an Emmy, an inductee of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the recipient of numerous Multi-Platinum and Gold selling albums – are solid evidence of his popularity, yet, from a critical perspective, Denver was frequently dismissed as a lightweight balladeer and purveyor of bland middle-of-the-road fluff. At the same time, he was a conflicted and complex individual, who, in his 1994 autobiography, openly admitted to heavy use of cannabis, LSD, cocaine, marital infidelities, and domestic violence and was also convicted of drunk driving.
At the age of eleven, Denver was given an acoustic guitar from his grandmother, and was playing local clubs whilst he attended college. In 1965, he joined the Mitchell Trio, replacing founder-member Chad Mitchell. By 1969, however, Denver sought out a solo career, and being signed to RCA Records, released his first album, Rhymes & Reasons. One of his early solo songs, then entitled Babe, I Hate To Go, was played to Denver’s producer, Milt Okun, who was also working with the established Folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, who promptly recorded it, under the title Leaving On A Jet Plane, and in October, 1969 gave the trio their biggest hit, and only US chart-topper.
Denver’s breakthrough in his own right was to come in 1971, with the single Take Me Home, Country Roads, from the album Poems, Prayers & Promises. By this time, he had a new manager, the future Hollywood movie producer, Jerry Weintraub. 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 Stateside 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 UK however, Denver had achieved little success and, somewhat unusually, was given his own BBC 2 TV six-part TV series, which ran in May and June of 1973. The half-hour shows had him host a variety of artists, ranging from Roger Daltrey (lead vocalist with The Who, of course, who was then promoting his first solo album), Lulu, Hurricane Smith, and others. Denver cut a genial, slightly geeky figure, togged out in cowboy shirts and Granny glasses, prone to punctuate his speech with exclamations like “Far Out!”. It was, nonetheless, a great showcase for his talents, and did much to pave the way for the chart-topping success of his composition, Annie’s Song, which peaked at number one in the UK singles listings in August 1974 – his only solo UK singles hit.
Denver continued to consolidate his breakthrough as the seventies wore on. By the late 1980s, however, Denver was no longer a chart act, but remained a popular live draw. He died aged 54 whilst piloting his own plane (flying was another of Denver’s favourite pastimes), crashing into the Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California on 12th October 1997. He was an experienced pilot, although at the time of the crash, he was not legally permitted to do so, because of his DUI convictions. An autopsy found no sign of alcohol or drugs in Denver’s system, however. It was a tragic end to the career of an artist who had achieved much in his fifty-three years. Time has only deepened the appreciation and respect that Denver has accrued in the years since his death.With thanks to Alan Robinson