WHAT’S THE STORY?

IT was 20 years ago today that the world lost a great entertainer and country and western music in particular saw the passing of one of its most iconic figures, John Denver. He was just 53, and left behind three children.

The singer-songwriter was killed when an experimental aircraft, which he was flying illegally, crashed into the sea off the coast of California. His family and close friends all knew the truth that Denver should not have been flying because his pilot’s licence had been suspended due to his well-publicised problems with alcohol – he was due to face drink driving charges when he died.

Loading article content

WHAT WAS THE REACTION?

AS one of the most popular entertainers of the second half of the 20th century, with a fan base across the globe which numbered in the millions, the sudden death of Denver and the horrific nature of his fatal accident – his body was so badly mangled he had to be identified by his fingerprints – caused immense shock, and many figures in public life queued up to pay tribute to the singer with the trademark long blond hair and “granny” glasses.

HIS LIFE STORY IN BRIEF

BORN Henry John Deutschendorf Jnr in Rosewell, New Mexico, in 1943, Denver was the son of a captain in the US Army Air Force. As a military family, they moved to numerous locations around the US as he was growing up and in his autobiography Take Me Home he noted the difficulties caused by having a strict disciplinarian as a father as well as having to move home often.

From an early age it was clear he had a musical talent that he may have inherited from his half-Irish grandmother, but that did not disguise the fact that Denver was a troubled and shy child, described by himself as introverted. He was at high school in Fort Worth when he snapped. While still only in his third year of high school he took his father’s car and drove to California, intent on starting life as a musician. His father flew to California and brought him back to finish his education.

Denver studied architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock but by then he was already making a name for himself in clubs as a very good acoustic guitarist. In 1963 he decided to make a go of a career in music and dropped out of university, moving to Los Angeles.

He played in folk clubs, joined a couple of bands and then in 1969 decided to go solo.

Denver had great success writing hits for other stars, the first of which was Leaving On A Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary while other stars, notably Olivia Newton John, covered versions of his next big hit, Take Me Home Country Roads.

Under new management, Denver went on to dominate the charts in the mid-1970s with four No 1 hits in a row – Sunshine On My Shoulders, Annie’s Song, Thank God I’m A Country Boy and I’m Sorry. The biggest of those was Annie’s Song which he wrote for his first wife Anne Martell, from whom he split in 1983.

His television shows made in the 1970s are still seen around the world today, and he was a popular guest on numerous other television shows and The Muppets, becoming a lifelong friend of Jim Henson and appearing in two Muppets specials. He also starred in the 1977 movie Oh God! opposite comedian George Burns.

Denver was also a successful producer for numerous artists and himself, latterly under the Windstar banner. Another hit was Rocky Mountain High celebrating his love of the great outdoors – early on, he adopted the name Denver from the capital of his favourite state Colorado, and later he made his home there in Aspen.

HOW BIG A STAR WAS HE?

DENVER was recognised as one of the biggest country stars to cross over to the mainstream, frequently achieving chart hits, and not just on the country and western charts. He had numerous platinum and gold-selling albums which he would probably not have achieved had he not had such broad appeal.

In his life, Denver recorded almost three hundred songs, of which two thirds were written by himself, and it is estimated that with sales surging after his untimely death and through a revival of his music, notably in films, over the past year, he has probably sold some fifty million records worldwide, making him one of the biggest selling country stars of all time.

His career peaked in the 70s, but he continued recording and performing through the 80s and 90s, but became more involved in political and humanitarian causes, particularly anti-hunger campaigns.

A lifelong Democrat, even Republican President Ronald Reagan honoured Denver with an award for his work on combating hunger.