John Denver - a biography

John DenverJohn Denver was known throughout the world as an entertainer. His 35 record albums, national and international concert tours, popular feature films, and top-rated television specials and many television guest appearances have brought him to the pinnacle of his profession. Yet, John Denver was more than an entertainer. He was a communicator with a unique talent which enabled him to share feelings, observations and opinions in a way in which all people, regardless of language, geographic, economic and political backgrounds can relate to his messages.

Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., on New Year's Eve, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico. His father's career in the U.S. Air Force required the family to move frequently. John's boyhood was nomadic, with homes in Arizona, Oklahoma, Alabama and Japan before the family finally settled in Fort Worth, Texas. Although many of Denver's high school activities centered around music, he studied architecture in college. Music continued to draw him and he gradually set his sights on it as a career. Securing a job as a draftsman in Los Angeles, California, he moonlighted as a performer at many of the folk clubs and eventually recorded some demos. He also changed his name to Denver, taking his new name from the city which connotes the beautiful Rocky Mountains which he eventually made his home.

The demos proved a vehicle for mobility. John was asked to travel to the East Coast to audition as Chad Mitchell's replacement in the highly successful Chad Mitchell Trio. Denver was selected from over 250 applicants as lead singer of the Trio, and performed with them for over two years. Attention was drawn to Denver's talent as a songwriter, when his song, Leaving on a Jet Plane, was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and quickly rose to the top of the charts.

Following this success, Denver performed at numerous colleges and built a national reputation of hits which made him one of the top singers of the decade. Sunshine on My Shoulders, Take Me Home, Country Roads, Rocky Mountain High, Annie's Song, Calypso, Thank God I'm a Country Boy, and many others were popular throughout the world.

In 26 years, Denver has garnered 18 gold albums (over 500,000 units sold) and 10 platinum albums (over 1,000,000 units sold). "There's something in my music that speaks to people", he said in a 1981 interview after receiving the Premier Artist Award from his label, RCA, after world-wide sales of 10 million copies of his album John Denver's Greatest Hits. "The music has a commonality, a quality that people everywhere can relate to."

While John Denver was at the top of the national music charts, his popularity spread to an international scale, making him one of the world's leading record sellers. He has received awards for gold albums (over 50,000 units sold) from Canada (2 albums), Australia (7 albums), Germany (1 double album) and Japan (1 album). John Denver is said to be one of the top 5 selling recording artists in the history of the music industry.

Denver began touring the U.S. in 1975, performing for large audiences in major cities across the country. His average concert tour included 50 performances, with audiences in excess of 15,000 per show. During his 1984 tour, Denver reached the largest audience of his career during a single concert at the St. Louis VIP Fair, with 750,000 enthusiastic spectators in attendance. John extended his concert schedule to include international tours to such diverse areas as Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and the Soviet Union. His sellout concert in London's Victoria Apollo Theatre was videotaped live in 1982 and shown twice by the BBC.
John Denver In 1985, Denver released his 24th album on RCA records -- Dreamland Express. The album was a distinct departure from Denver's image. The album proved very popular with Denver's fans and casual listeners as well. It again showed his versatility as a performer. A single from the album, Don't Close Your Eyes Tonight, was the basis for Denver's first music video, which allowed him to combine his acting and singing talents. Denver's 25th album, One World, featured the internationally acclaimed song Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?). A special version of the song was recorded with Soviet superstar vocalist Alexandre Gradsky at Moscow's Melodiya Studios. The recording represented the first time that a Soviet performer was allowed to appear on record with a major American singer. A video made with this recording has received popular and critical acclaim in the United States and overseas. Said Denver, who worked energetically to create a bond between Soviet and American citizens, "In a career that's been full of dreams come true, this is the best thing I've ever done."

John Denver's dedication to making a contribution to a world of peace led him to seek avenues to exploit his international popularity for that end. In November of 1984, Denver visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Soviet Union of Composers. Denver's appearances where supposed to be limited to private concerts; however, the composers union, moved by his performances, scheduled a performance at Moscow's International Trade Center and taped portions of the show for broadcast on Russia's national television network. A performance at the American Embassy by Denver attracted the first Soviet officials to attend an Embassy event since the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the USSR expired in 1980.

The success of this initial visit led to an invitation from the Soviet Union for a 12 day concert tour in June of 1985. The tour marked the first time an American artist was invited to give public performances in the Soviet Union since the cultural exchange agreement expired. The Deputy Director of Cultural Affairs for the Leningrad Municipal Council introduced John at a press conference for Soviet newspapers with these words: "There is a Russian saying that the first swallow of spring won't make the weather for the whole season, but the first swallow can mark the turn to a warmer climate. We hope this John Denver tour will lead to a warmer relationship in US-Soviet cultural affairs." Said Denver, "As an artist and entertainer, I am committed to building understanding and friendship between peoples." Playing to packed houses in 3 Soviet cities, Denver sang Annie's Song in Russian to the delight of his Soviet audiences.

Continuing his role in Soviet-American relations, Denver hosted the first cultural exchange between the U.S. and USSR after President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev met in Geneva. Denver was part of a "Children's summit" connecting Moscow with Minneapolis. The event linked children at Moscow's Ostankino concert Hall with children in Minneapolis' Children's Theater by satellite for an hour long show. The show was broadcasted in both the U.S. and USSR. In late 1985, Denver met with Secretary of State George Schultz to offer a proposal to create an organization funded by the private sector to underwrite cultural exchange between the U.S. and the USSR. In 1987, Denver became the first western artist to perform a benefit concert in the Soviet Union for the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

In 1992 John Denver extended his role as musical ambassador further east and toured mainland China, followed by a tour of Vietnam in 1994, which marked the first time that an American singer played there after the Vietnam war. To his surprise he found out that people everywhere were familiar with his hit Country Roads - he was told that this was the best-known song from the western world in China. 

Numerous awards have been bestowed upon Denver for his excellence in composition and recording. These include:
- #1 top selling album (1974)
- #1 recording artist in the U.S. (1974)
- Music Entertainer of the Year (1975)
- Favorite Musical Performer
- People's Choice Award (1975)
- American Guild of Variety Artists' (AGVA) Singing Star of the Year (1975)
- In 1987 he was selected as the recipient of the Yamaha Music Award. According to Yamaha, "The award was created as a means of acknowledging those who have had a significant impact on the world of music. This award is presented not for any single accomplishment, but in recognition of an ongoing dedication to excellence in music."
- In 1993 he was the first non-classical artist to receive the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Award for a "life dedicated to music and humanity".
- Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children in 1998 ("All Aboard!")

From his recording success, John Denver expanded to other fields of entertainment. "Oh, God", his motion picture debut in which he co-starred with George Burns, was a solid commercial hit and played in 34 countries. John starred in "Leftovers", a movie made for TV aired in November of 1986 and in "A Christmas Gift", filmed in his beloved Rocky Mountains and aired in December of 1986. He continued his TV movie work in the critically acclaimed "Foxfire" with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in December of 1987. He also got the lead role in "Higher Ground" (1988), pilot for a TV series that never happened. In 1993 he acted in a family movie called "Walking Thunder", which was shown on TV only in several countries and was finally released in the US on video in 1997.

He established himself as a major television personality, sharing the spotlight in a series of top-rated specials with such outstanding and sometimes unexpected talents as "Ol' Blue Eyes" Frank Sinatra, actor Danny Kaye, operatic-soprano Beverly Sills, flautist James Galway, tenor Placido Domingo, violinist Itzhak Perlman and a Muppet frog named Kermit. In December of 1987 he joined Julie Andrews on her return to Austria, the site of "The Sound of Music", for her Christmas special. John's television specials have been aired in countries around the world, from Ireland to New Zealand. "A Christmas Together with the Muppets" was shown four years in a row by popular demand. "Rocky Mountain Christmas", another John Denver television special, was awarded an Emmy for outstanding television production by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as the best musical/variety special of the season. "Rocky Mountain

John Denver

Reunion" (1979), a documentary about endangered species, received six awards. Other television endeavors included Denver's annual Celebrity Pro/Am Ski Tournament held at Lake Tahoe. He has also established Grammy's focus on excellence in musical achievement, and in 1984 received the prestigious Grammy nomination for his album, Rocky Mountain Holiday as best album for children. It  would last after his untimely death, when he finally won his first and only Grammy, with his last album, All Aboard!, in 1998, which was named Best Musical Album for Children. 

One of John Denver's last major projects was "The WILDlife Concert" in 1995, a concert that took place on two evenings in New York City in the Sony Music Studios in front of a small audience. It resulted in a double CD set on Sony's Legacy label, a commercial video and a TV special on the Arts & Entertainment channel. The first airing in June 1995 marked the highest ratings in that TV channel's history; video and CD were also highly successful, the album finally garnered Denver his 17th gold album in 1997. 

John DenverJohn Denver gained an international reputation as a singer and composer. His music reflected the conscience of a concerned citizen, a man working for the improvement of the quality of life for all people -- environmentally, politically and socially. In 1978, Denver was named to serve as a member of the Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger. He was one of the five founders of the Hunger Project and to Unicef, he was a member of a fact-finding delegation which toured African countries hit hard by drought and starvation. In 1985, John Denver was awarded the Presidential World Without Hunger Award, conferred by President Ronald Reagan, for "vision, initiative and leadership in the effort to achieve a world without hunger." Denver's conviction that "we can end hunger in our lifetime" was an often repeated theme in his speeches and at his concerts. In 1986 Denver was designated a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador by U.N. High Commissioner Jean-Pierre Hocke at Refugee '86 Gala, a fund-raising telethon for refugees. In 1987, Denver sent letters to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II proposing a possible way to wind down the arms race. Called "The One Percent Solution", Denver's proposal asked that "the United States and Soviet Union each take one percent of their defense budget and begin to invest it in programs at home that can create jobs, clean up the environment, increase productivity, and at the same time support programs in Africa and elsewhere that are beginning to make a dent in the obscenity of hunger and starvation in our world."

Denver's social and political interests covered a wide spectrum. He was a member of the National Space Institute, Save the Children, the Cousteau Society, Friends of the Earth, the Human/Dolphin Foundation, and European Space Agency, to name but a few. In addition, Denver was co-founder of and initially funded the Windstar Foundation, an educational project exploring healthful and balanced solutions to crucial contemporary issues through the integration of earth, mind and spirit. Besides that he also founded Plant-It 2000, a remarkably successful environmental organization, which planted several hundred thousand trees all around the world in the last few years. 

The articulate John Denver has spoken before many prestigious colleges and universities in the United States, as well as the National Press club in Washington, D.C. In 1977, he was selected as the Poet Laureate of Colorado by the People's Choice Award. One of his highest honors was being chosen in 1982 for the Carl Sandburg People's Poet Award. He also trained his skills as a writer. In 1994 he released his autobiography, Take Me Home, which was co-written with Arthur Tobier.

Another of Denver's interests was photography. Stating that photography is a way to communicate a feeling, John made his debut in 1980 as a photographer at the fashionable Hammer Galleries in Manhattan. The show, featuring photographs taken from the Caribbean to Rome, was well-received and served as a benefit fundraiser for the Windstar Foundation. John's cameras travelled the world with him, capturing faces, scenery and moments both unusual and familiar. His photography was a further expression of a unique artistic talent.

Among Denver's major interests was, tragically, a long-held fascination with aviation. Growing up in an Air Force family, this interest was born early. He received his private pilot's license in 1976 and his Learjet Type Rating in 1978. In 1981, his instrument rating enabled him to fly as a captain at all altitudes. Denver was also an aerobatics pilot and licensed to fly gliders. His conscientiousness and enthusiasm for flying paid off. At Oshkosh, Wisconsin, site of the most prestigious air event in the U.S., he was honored by the Experimental Aircraft Association for his support of general and experimental aircraft and was even selected to serve on the Board of Advisors for EAA. Not content to keep his interest in aviation to himself, Denver co-produced a 1980 television special, "The Higher We Fly", a fascinating look at aircraft, space and the many possibilities opening for increased scientific knowledge in this realm. It was honored by the Houston Film Festival and won the coveted Earl Osborn Award from the Aviation /Space Writer's Association. Denver took advantage of any opportunity made available to him to fly various aircraft. He flew Air Force F-15 fighters and the space shuttle simulator. Long a vocal advocate of the manned space program, he has been invited by NASA to receive a medal normally reserved for spaceflight designers and engineers. He was presented NASA's Public Service Medal for helping increase "awareness of space exploration by the peoples of the world." "I loved the medal," said Denver, "but there's something I'm looking forward to even more ... the day when I'll be able to ride the shuttle." This wish was short to being fulfilled. Had president Reagan not decided to send a teacher as the first civilian in space, Denver had taken the seat of Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger's fatal flight in 1986. 

The world was shocked when John Denver's love for aviation eventually took his life on October 12th, 1997. He was flying an experimental Long EZ over Monterey Bay, CA on a sunny late afternoon, when he suffered a fatal accident at the age of 53. The accident's cause may never be found out accurately. Investigators determined a series of factors, including John Denver's lack of experience with this particular airplane and the fuel selector handle's hard-to-access position. When he tried to switch to his back-up tank he had to turn around, thereby most likely hitting the right rudder with his leg, which resulted in the loss of airplane control. Due to the low altitude he was flying he had no chance to regain control. He was survived by his three children, Zachary (born 1974), Anna Kate (born 1976), and Jesse Belle (born 1989). 

John Denver's life was truly a multi-faceted one. He was a master communicator who could reach audiences despite geographic, economic, political and language barriers. He was an international figure dedicated to the environment and world peace. "Music," Denver explained, "is indeed the universal language. It does bring people together and allows us to experience that people everywhere are the same in their heart and spirit; no matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our faith - we are the same."

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John Denver