Support the podcast. Please shop on Apple and Amazon through our affiliate links. This will cost you NOTHING but will help us tremendously!Donate

PODCAST EPISODE 41 – John Denver


Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., born December 31, 1943, known professionally as John Denver, was an American singer-songwriter, record producer, actor, activist, and humanitarian, whose greatest commercial success was as a solo singer. After traveling and living in numerous locations while growing up in his military family, Denver began his music career with folk music groups during the late 1960s. Starting in the 1970s, he was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the decade and one of its best-selling artists. By 1974, he was firmly established as one of America’s best-selling performers, and AllMusic has described Denver as “among the most beloved entertainers of his era”.

Denver recorded and released approximately 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed, with total sales of over 33 million records worldwide. He recorded and performed primarily with an acoustic guitar and sang about his joy in nature, his disdain for city life, his enthusiasm for music, and his relationship trials. Denver’s music appeared on a variety of charts, including country music, the Billboard Hot 100, and adult contemporary, in all earning him twelve gold and four platinum albums with his signature songs “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Annie’s Song”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Calypso”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, and “Sunshine on My Shoulders”.

Denver appeared in several films and television specials during the 1970s and 1980s. He continued to record in the 1990s, also focusing on environmental issues by lending vocal support to space exploration and testifying in front of Congress in protest against censorship in music. He lived in Aspen, Colorado, for much of his life and was known for his love of Colorado, which he sang about numerous times. In 1974 Denver was named poet laureate of the state. The Colorado state legislature also adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as one of its two state songs in 2007.

Denver was an avid pilot who died at age 53 in a single-fatality crash while flying his experimental Rutan Long-EZ canard aircraft.

Song history

Denver described how he wrote “Sunshine on My Shoulders”: “I wrote the song in Minnesota at the time I call ‘late winter, early spring’. It was a dreary day, gray and slushy. The snow was melting and it was too cold to go outside and have fun, but God, you’re ready for spring. You want to get outdoors again and you’re waiting for that sun to shine, and you remember how sometimes just the sun itself can make you feel good. And in that very melancholy frame of mind I wrote ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders’.”

The song was slightly remixed for single release, with the addition of strings and woodwinds to enhance the background of the song. The album version features an extra verse, not heard on the Singles charts, due to the song’s length. In addition to Denver’s wondering on if he had a day and a song. In the second verse, It mentions Denver’s wondering if he had a tale, and a wish. The song ends with the words “ALMOST ALWAYS”, being held on until the song’s end. The full length single mix with the second verse has been released on most of Denver’s hits compilations.

It was originally the B-side of one of his earlier songs, “I’d Rather Be a Cowboy”. As the Vietnam War came to an end, the song took on a new significance and began to receive airplay on adult contemporary radio stations. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 90 on January 26, 1974 and moved into the number one spot nine weeks later, remaining at #1 for one week. The song also topped the adult contemporary chart for two weeks in 1974. Billboard ranked it as the No. 18 song for 1974.

Take Me Home, Country Roads”, is a song written by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert, and John Denver. It was released as a single performed by John Denver on April 12, 1971, peaking at number 2 on Billboard’s US Top 40 Singles for the week ending August 28, 1971. The song was a success on its initial release and was certified Gold by the RIAA on August 18, 1971, and Platinum on April 10, 2017. The song became one of John Denver’s most popular and beloved songs. It has continued to sell, with over a million digital copies sold in the United States. It is considered to be Denver’s signature song.

The song has a prominent status as an iconic symbol of West Virginia, which it describes as “almost Heaven”; for example, it was played at the funeral memorial for U.S. Senator Robert Byrd in July 2010. In March 2014, it became one of several official state anthems of West Virginia.

Composition

Danoff and his then-wife, Mary Nivert, wrote “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” both of which were hits for John Denver. Danoff (from Springfield, Massachusetts) has stated he had never been to West Virginia before co-writing the song. Inspiration for the song had come while driving to a family reunion of Nivert’s relatives along Clopper Road in nearby Maryland. To pass the time en route, Danoff had made up a ballad about the little winding roads they were taking. He had even briefly considered using “Massachusetts” rather than “West Virginia,” as both four-syllable state names would have fit the song’s meter.

Starting December 22, 1970, John Denver was heading the bill at The Cellar Door, a Washington, D.C. club. Danoff and Nivert opened for him as a duo named Fat City. After the Tuesday post-Christmas re-opening night (Cellar Door engagements ran from Tuesday to Sunday, and this booking was for two weeks,) the three headed back to their place for an impromptu jam. On the way, Denver’s left thumb was broken in an automobile accident. He was taken to the hospital, where a splint was applied.

Danoff and Nivert then told him about the song that they had been working on for about a month. Originally, Danoff and Nivert had planned to sell the song to popular country singer Johnny Cash, but when Denver heard the song and decided he had to have it, the duo who wrote the original lyrics decided not to make the sale.

They sang the song for Denver and as he recalled, “I flipped.” The three stayed up until 6:00 a.m., changing words and moving lines around. When they finished, John announced that the song had to go on his next album.

The song was premiered December 30, 1970, during an encore of Denver’s set, with the singers reading the words from a folded piece of paper. This resulted in a five-minute ovation, one of the longest in Cellar Door history. They recorded it in New York City in January 1971.

Commercial performance

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” appeared on the LP Poems, Prayers & Promises and was released as a 45 in the spring of 1971. Original pressings credited the single to “John Denver with Fat City”. It broke nationally in mid-April but moved up the charts very slowly. After several weeks, RCA Records called John and told him that they were giving up on the single. His response: “No! Keep working on it!” They did, and the single went to number 1 on the Record World Pop Singles Chart and the Cash Box Top 100, and number 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, topped only by “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by The Bee Gees.

On August 18, 1971, it was certified Gold by the RIAA for a million copies shipped. The song continued to sell in the digital era. As of September 2017, the song has also sold an additional 1,584,000 downloads since it became available digitally.

Rocky Mountain High” is a folk rock song written by John Denver and Mike Taylor about Colorado, and is one of the two official state songs of Colorado. Recorded by Denver in 1972, it went to #9 on the US Hot 100 in 1973. (The song also made #3 on the Easy Listening chart and was played by some country music stations.) Denver told concert audiences in the mid-1970s that the song took him an unusually long nine months to write. On April 10, 2017, the song was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for sales of 500,000 digital downloads.

Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.

Background and writing

“Rocky Mountain High” is primarily inspired by John Denver’s move to Aspen, Colorado three years before its writing and his love for the state. The seventh stanza makes a reference to destruction of the mountains’ beauty by commercial tourism. The song was considered a major piece of 1970s pop culture and became a well-associated piece of Colorado history.

The song briefly became controversial that year when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission was permitted by a legal ruling to censor music deemed to promote drug abuse. Numerous radio stations cautiously banned the song until Denver publicly explained that the “high” was his innocent description of the sense of peace he found in the Rockies. In 1985, Denver testified before Congress in the Parents Music Resource Center hearings about his experience:

This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains, and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseid meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the first time.

Denver appeared in several films and television specials during the 1970s and 1980s. He continued to record in the 1990s, also focusing on environmental issues by lending vocal support to space exploration and testifying in front of Congress in protest against censorship in music. He lived in Aspen, Colorado, for much of his life and was known for his love of Colorado, which he sang about numerous times. In 1974 Denver was named poet laureate of the state. The Colorado state legislature also adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as one of its two state songs in 2007.

Denver was an avid pilot who died aged 53 in a single-fatality crash while flying his experimental Rutan Long-EZ canard aircraft.

Death

Denver was killed on October 12, 1997 when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane, aircraft registration number N555JD, crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California, while making a series of touch-and-go landings at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) accident ID is LAX98FA008.

 Denver was the only occupant of the aircraft. Identification was not possible using dental records; only his fingerprints confirmed that the pilot was Denver.

A pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience, Denver had pilot ratings for single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider, and instrument. He also held a type rating in his Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft, made by someone else from a kit, and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before the accident.

Denver was not legally permitted to fly at the time of the accident. In previous years, Denver had a number of drunk driving arrests. In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration learned that Denver had failed to maintain sobriety by failing to refrain entirely from alcohol, and was compelled to revoke his medical certification. However, the accident was not influenced by alcohol use, as an autopsy found no sign of alcohol or other drugs in Denver’s body.

Post-accident investigation by the NTSB showed that the leading cause of the accident was Denver’s inability to switch fuel tanks during flight. The quantity of fuel had been depleted during the plane’s transfer to Monterey and in several brief practice takeoffs and landings Denver performed at the airport immediately prior to the final flight. His newly purchased experimental Rutan had an unusual fuel selector valve handle configuration. Intended by the plane’s designer to be located between the pilot’s legs, the builder instead had placed the fuel selector behind the pilot’s left shoulder, with the fuel gauge also behind the pilot’s seat and not visible to the person at the controls. An NTSB interview with the aircraft mechanic servicing Denver’s plane revealed that he and Denver had discussed the inaccessibility of the cockpit fuel selector valve handle and its resistance to being turned.

Before the flight, Denver and the mechanic had attempted to extend the reach of the handle, using a pair of Vise-Grip pliers. However, this did not solve the problem, and the pilot still could not reach the handle while strapped into his seat. NTSB investigators’ post-accident investigation showed that because of the positioning of the fuel selector valves, switching fuel tanks required the pilot to turn his body 90 degrees to reach the valve. This created a natural tendency to extend one’s right foot against the right rudder pedal to support oneself while turning in the seat, which caused the aircraft to yaw (nose right) and pitch up.

The mechanic said he had remarked to Denver that the fuel sight gauges were visible only to the rear cockpit occupant. Denver had asked how much fuel was shown. He told Denver there was “less than half in the right tank and less than a quarter in the left tank”. He then provided Denver with an inspection mirror so he could look over his shoulder at the fuel gauges. The mirror was later recovered in the wreckage. Denver said he would use the autopilot inflight to hold the airplane level while he turned the fuel selector valve. He turned down an offer to refuel, saying he would be flying for about an hour.

The NTSB interviewed 20 witnesses of Denver’s last flight. Six of them had seen the plane crash into the ocean near Point Pinos. Four witnesses stated the aircraft was originally heading west. Five said they saw the plane in a steep bank, with four of these saying the bank was to the right (north). Twelve witnesses described seeing the aircraft in a steep nose-down descent. Witnesses estimated the plane’s altitude to be between 350 and 500 feet (110 and 150 m) when heading toward the shoreline. Eight said that they heard a “pop” or “backfire”, accompanied by a reduction in the engine noise level just before the airplane crashed into the sea.

In addition to Denver’s failing to refuel and his subsequent loss of control, while attempting to switch fuel tanks, the NTSB determined there were other key factors that led to the accident. Foremost among these was Denver’s inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft, and the builder’s decision to locate the fuel selector handle in a difficult-to-reach location.[41][42] The board issued recommendations on the requirement and enforcement of mandatory training standards for pilots operating experimental aircraft. It also emphasized the importance of mandatory ease of access to all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft.

Links:

The Book:
https://amzn.to/2HrXUUS
The Podcast on iTunes:
https://apple.co/2HGtPQZ
The podcast on Google Play:
http://celebrityarchaeologypodcast.com/gpm
The website:
http://CelebrityArchaeology.com
Become a Patreon:
https://www.patreon.com/celebrityarchaeology

Liked it? Take a second to support on Patreon!

Spread the word. Share this post!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

error: All Content Is Protected!