John Denver brought folk music to a higher level during the 1970s and inspired generations to come. His manager once said, “If you give Elvis the ’50s and the Beatles the ’60s, I think you’ve got to give John Denver the ’70s.” His picturesque lyrics, rising vocals, and acoustic guitar sets were a pleasant escape from the times. Songs like Rocky Mountain High or Country Roads and Sunshine on My Shoulder were the kind of tunes that separated Denver from the rest.
But like too many other musicians, Denver’s life came to an abrupt end. And it wasn’t the result of drugs or alcohol. His life came to a tragic end when an experimental plane that he was flying crashed into the Pacific Ocean. While some have debated whether or not the crash was intentional, his passing shocked the nation.
This is the rise and sudden fall of John Denver…
He was born in Roswell, New Mexico, as Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on December 31, 1943. His interest in airplanes stemmed directly from his father, who was a United States Air Force pilot and flying instructor. Denver learned how to fly at a young age through his father, and it was a passion he held on to his whole life.
During the late 1940s and ‘50s, his family moved around a lot – to Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama, and Texas – which wasn’t easy on the boy. When he turned 11, Denver got a 1910 Gibson acoustic guitar as a gift from his grandmother. The guitar was his one constant in his unstable upbringing.
Since Denver never really knew where his home was, he found safety in nature and the outdoors. He once said in an interview: “When I was a child, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of friends. My father was in the Air Force. We moved around a great deal, and I used to go out into the desert, or I’d climb up into a tree or I’d be up in the mountains, just anywhere that I could get out in nature.”
By the time he reached college, Denver had grown more comfortable and started to perform acoustic guitar at local venues. In 1961, he went to Texas Tech University (known as Texas Technical College at the time).
Denver dropped out of college to make it in the music business. In 1964, he moved to Los Angeles. There, he began performing at Leadbetter’s night club, where he met Randy Sparks, the founder of the folk group The New Christy Minstrels. Sparks told him that his last name, Deutschendorf, wasn’t going to help his career.
And so, he became John Denver. Why Denver? Well, apparently, it was the capital of his favorite state Colorado. Not only was it the place his family finally settled in, but Colorado also has a strong association with mountains and nature – something he enjoyed singing about. The name clearly worked for him as a stage name that people easily remembered.
By 1965, Denver was in New York City and won a gig competing against 250 other candidates for the Chad Mitchell Trio, but he only caught his big break in 1967 when he ended up replacing Chad Mitchell himself. The trio became “Denver, Boise, and Johnson.” Speaking of trios, folk group Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a song that Denver wrote: Leaving on a Jet Plane.
The song was a hit, and Denver’s appeal skyrocketed. Music industry executives wanted Denver. By 1969, Denver had already left his trio to pursue a solo career. In October of that year, his first album was released with RCA Records: Rhymes & Reasons. On the album was his very own rendition of Leaving on a Jet Plane.
From the late ‘60s into the mid-‘70s, Denver made and released six albums. Four of them were commercial successes. The songs Take Me Home, Country Roads, Rocky Mountain High, and Thank God I’m A Country Boy put him on the map. His tune Rocky Mountain High became the state song of Colorado.
Denver’s popularity grew so much that sooner than later, he was playing sold-out shows at stadiums across the United States. It was around this time that, after a concert in Minnesota, he met Annie Martell – his future wife. The couple married, and she became the subject of his famous hit Annie’s Song. He apparently composed the track in 10 minutes as he sat on a Colorado ski lift after the two had had an argument.
In 1971, Denver released his fourth studio album called Poems, Prayers, and Promises. Take Me Home, Country Roads was his first million-selling single. It marked the beginning of a prolific streak of hits that lasted through the ‘70s. The song’s success was partly due to the efforts of his new manager, future Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub.
Weintraub signed Denver in 1970 and insisted on re-issuing the track and getting a radio-airplay campaign, which started in Denver, Colorado. His career flourished from that point on. By 1972, he made his first Top 10 album with Rocky Mountain High, with the title track reaching the Top 10. Between 1974 and 1975, Denver was known as a prolific musician, dominating the charts with three No. 1 albums and four No. 1 songs.
His album, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, turned into one of the highest-selling albums in the history of the RCA label. Over 10 million sales were counted. But despite his popularity, some people saw John Denver as a lightweight folk singer. The musician also had a specific style that might not have appealed to most Americans.
During the 1970s, his onstage appearance involved the long blond-haired singer wearing his “granny” glasses. His embroidered shirts had images commonly associated with the American West. Denver appeared on many TV shows. He had a seasonal special, called the Rocky Mountain Christmas special, which was viewed by over 60 million people and became the highest-rated ABC show at that time.
By 1982, Denver had ended his business relationship with Weintraub due to the manager’s focus on other projects. He reportedly kicked Denver out of his office and even accused him of being a Nazi. Denver later wrote in 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.”
When one door closes, another one opens. Denver entered into a lifelong relationship with Jim Henson once he started getting involved in The Muppet Show as a guest on the series.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Denver hosted the Grammy Awards five times and guest-hosted The Tonight Show a few times. It was in the mid-‘70s that Denver became outspoken in politics. In 1977, he co-founded The Hunger Project. He expressed ecologic interests in his 1975 song Calypso – an ode to the exploration ship once used by environmental activist Jacques Cousteau.
In 1976, he helped campaign for Jimmy Carter, who became one of his close friends and allies. As the ‘70s came to an end, he devoted himself more to humanitarian causes like wildlife, land conservation, hunger, and helping NASA explore space. It was as though he realized that he was past his musical peak and needed to move on to bigger and more important things.
Denver and his first wife, Annie, lived in Edina, Minnesota, from 1968 to 1971. After the success of Rocky Mountain High, Denver bought a place in Aspen, Colorado – where he lived until his death. The Denvers adopted a boy they named Zachary John and a girl named Anna Kate. Denver once said that the best thing about him was the fact that he was “some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad.”
“When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by.” The song A Baby Just Like You is about little Zachary, although he actually wrote it for Frank Sinatra.
By 1982, Denver and Martell had divorced. He said his career demands drove them apart. But, according to Annie, they were simply too young and immature to deal with his sudden success. Following their property settlement, Denver allegedly became abusive. He reportedly used a chainsaw to literally cut their bed in half.
In 1988, Denver married Australian actress Cassandra Delaney after dating her for two years. The couple lived in Denver’s home in Aspen, and they had a daughter together named Jesse Belle. Three years later, they were separated. By 1993, they were divorced. Of his marriage to Delaney, Denver recalled that “before our short-lived marriage ended in divorce, she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other.”
Denver may have been a laid-back musician making music about the mountains, but he faced some legal trouble in the early ‘90s. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to a drinking and driving charge. After that, he was placed on probation. The next year, while still on probation, he was charged again. This time, with misdemeanor driving – also under the influence – after crashing his Porsche into a tree in Aspen.
His case even went to a jury trial. In 1997, the trial resulted in a hung jury on the second DUI charge. Prosecutors later reopened the case, only to close it after Denver’s death in October 1997. In 1996, the FAA concluded that Denver would no longer be allowed to fly a plane. The decision was made as a result of his failure to abstain from alcohol. And it would come to be a major factor in his death…
On October 12, 1997, Denver was test flying an experimental plane that he had recently bought from a man in Santa Maria. He was practicing a number of touch-and-go landings that afternoon before taking the plane out for a spin over Monterey Bay in California. But his “test ride” turned out to be his last. He was only 53 years old.
Less than half an hour into the flight, the plane nosedived into the water. Search, and rescue crews that called onto the scene found Denver floating near the plane’s debris. It was later confirmed that the impact of the crash meant his death was instantaneous. While his death was certain, the reason why was left up for debate. There were many unresolved questions …
There are a few factors that led to the crash and, consequently, to Denver’s death. The first issue was that Denver had neglected to refuel the plane. He might have believed that there was enough fuel for a short spin, but the design of the aircraft required the pilot to un-buckle and turn around completely to switch the secondary fuel tank valve.
Denver apparently turned down the offer to refuel, insisting that he would use autopilot to keep the plane level while moving to turn the fuel selector valve. Experts believe that while doing that, he likely extended his foot onto the right rudder pedal, creating a downward turn.
A representative from the National Transportation Safety Board said Denver didn’t give any emergency indication when he radioed into the Monterey airport control tower – a routine transmission – mere seconds before the crash. Denver had radioed the tower to say that he was adjusting his transponder, a device that signals to the tower in order for air traffic controllers to see an aircraft on their screens.
“He was sending the transponder signal,” George Petterson, a safety board investigator, said. He then revealed what John Denver’s last words were: “Do you have it now?” By the time they saw it on the screen, they had tried to call Denver back, but his signal vanished at 1728 hours (5:28 p.m.). “There had been no indication of any trouble.”
Witnesses saw that Denver’s plane was flying 500 feet above the water when it suddenly plummeted down. It then disintegrated on impact, 200 yards off Point Pinos. According to veteran pilots of the same kind of plane, the crash could have resulted from a number of factors considering that the plane is so fast, light and unusual.
Some said that if the front wing had broken away, the small plane would have lost its stability and fallen right out of the sky. A veteran Long-EZ pilot said Denver could have been so distracted by setting his radar systems properly that he didn’t even notice the plane heading toward the sea. As it turns out, Denver’s experimental plane was anything but safe and reliable.
Canard Aviators, a group of home-built aircraft enthusiasts, stated that the Long-EZ aircraft (the one Denver was flying) had suffered 61 accidents (reported to the safety board) between 1983 and 1996. Of those 61, 19 of them involved fatalities. Experts on the Long-EZ say the plane isn’t made by any single manufacturer.
Instead, people buy plans and build the plane themselves – out of Styrofoam, fiberglass, and metal. With its rear propeller and front wing, it can cruise at nearly 200 mph. Experts assume that Denver bought the plane on the used-plane market. It was later discovered that Denver’s plane was designed by Elbert “Burt” Rutan, a man best known for the long-winged Voyager, which was the first airplane to fly around the world without refueling.
It’s unclear whether Denver knew any of this information concerning the plane’s record, but what is pretty clear is that he expected to return shortly. Before boarding his nearly 10-year-old plane, Denver told people at the airport that he had enough fuel for an hour or so in the air. He even left his Porsche in the parking lot with its top-down, seemingly expecting to return after a brief amount of time.
Coast Guard officials described Denver’s body as “badly mangled.” It was identified through fingerprints on file in Colorado. A memorial service was then set for Aspen. Much of the nation wept at the news of John Denver’s death. President Clinton himself said in a statement: “His soaring music evoked the grandeur of our landscape and the simple warmth of human love.”
Denver’s spokesman, Paul Shefrin, said the singer had been flying for over 20 years and also owned a Lear Jet in addition to the Long- EZ. Denver had yet another plane – a two-seater, high- performance Christen Eagle. It was sitting in the hangar at the Monterey airport. Denver was clearly an enthusiast, but due to his record for driving under the influence, his piloting license was an issue.
Of course, he was not legally permitted to fly. But, despite his record, autopsy reports indicated that he had not been drinking on the day of the crash. Although he was sober that day, theories were floating around regarding the purpose of the flight. The popular theory is that Denver deliberately crashed the plane. Why? The idea is that he was severely depressed and was looking for the right way to call it a day.
Upon hearing of Denver’s death, the governor of Colorado called for all state flags to be lowered to half-mast – in recognition and appreciation of his achievements. The state of Colorado also built a bronze statue in his honor, located at Red Rocks Amphitheater.
On the anniversary of Denver’s death, Aspen holds a week-long John Denver celebration with live music, tours of his home, and old radio broadcasts. Denver left behind a legacy. By the time of his death, he had recorded and released around 300 songs, 200 of them he composed himself. He achieved over 33 million record sales worldwide. In 1996, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, Denver wasn’t the only musician whose untimely death was the result of a plane crash. Take the story of Otis Redding, for example…