During the 1970s, John Denver elevated folk music to a new level, inspiring future generations. His picturesque lyrics, rising vocals, and acoustic guitar sets provided a welcome diversion from the times. Rocky Mountain High, Country Roads, and Sunshine on My Shoulder were just a few of the songs that set Denver apart from the rest. Denver’s life, like that of so many other musicians, was cut short. His life was tragically cut short when an experimental plane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean. While some have questioned whether the crash was deliberate, his death shocked the country. This is the rise and sudden fall of John Denver…
Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.
Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. was born on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico. His fascination with planes was sparked by his father, a United States Air Force pilot and flying instructor. Denver learned to fly from his father when he was a child, and it was a lifelong passion for him. His family moved a lot in the late 1940s and 1950s to Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama, and Texas, which was difficult for the young boy.
Finding Safety in Nature
Denver’s grandmother gave him a 1910 Gibson acoustic guitar when he was 11 years old. In his chaotic upbringing, the guitar was his only constant. He never knew where he belonged. In an interview, he stated: “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.”
From Deutschendorf to Denver
Denver had grown more comfortable by the time he got to college and began performing acoustic guitar at local venues. He enrolled at Texas Tech University in 1961. (known as Texas Technical College at the time). Denver dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1964. He started performing at Leadbetter’s nightclub there, where he met Randy Sparks, the founder of the folk band The New Christy Minstrels. His last name, Deutschendorf, wouldn’t help him advance in his career, according to Sparks.
From One Trio to Another
He became known as John Denver. It was, after all, the capital of his favorite state, Colorado. Colorado was not only the final destination for his family, but it also has a strong association with mountains and nature, which he enjoyed singing about. It worked well for him, for it was memorable. Denver arrived in New York City in 1965 and won a job with the Chad Mitchell Trio after competing against 250 other candidates, but it wasn’t until 1967 that he got his big break, replacing Chad Mitchell himself. They were known as “Denver, Boise, and Johnson.”
This One’s for Annie
Denver wrote the song Leaving on a Jet Plane, which Paul and Mary recorded. Denver had left his trio in 1969 to pursue a solo career. Rhymes & Reasons, his first album, was released by RCA Records in October of that year. His own version of Leaving on a Jet Plane was included on the album. Take Me Home, Country Roads, Rocky Mountain High, and Thank God I’m A Country Boy were among his most popular songs. Rocky Mountain High, his song, became the state song of Colorado.
Poems, Prayers, and Promises
Denver’s popularity grew to the point where he was performing to sold-out crowds in stadiums across the country. Around this time, he met Annie Martell, his future wife, after a concert in Minnesota. She became the subject of his famous hit Annie’s Song after the couple married. After an argument, he apparently composed the track in 10 minutes while sitting on a Colorado ski lift. Denver’s fourth studio album, Poems, Prayers, and Promises, was released in 1971. His first million-selling single was Take Me Home, Country Roads.
Rocky Mountain High
The song’s success was aided in part by his new manager, Jerry Weintraub, a future Hollywood producer. In 1970, Weintraub signed Denver and insisted on re-issuing the song and launching a radio campaign in Denver, Colorado. Rocky Mountain High, released in 1972, was his first Top 10 album, with the title track reaching No. 10. Denver was a prolific musician between 1974 and 1975, dominating the charts with three No. 1 albums and four No. 1 song. His album, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, became one of the best-selling albums in the RCA catalog’s history.
Blonde Hair and Granny Glasses
Despite his popularity, some critics dismissed John Denver as a flimsy folk singer. Also, the musician had a distinct style that may not have appealed to the majority of Americans. His onstage appearance in the 1970s included the long blond-haired singer wearing his “granny” glasses. His embroidered shirts featured images of the American West that were popular at the time. Denver appeared on several television shows. He had a Christmas special called Rocky Mountain Christmas, which drew over 60 million viewers and was the highest-rated ABC show at the time.
When One Door Closes, Another One Opens
“I’d bend my principles to support something he wanted of me,” Denver later wrote in his autobiography. And, of course, you sell your soul to the devil every time you bend your principles. Well, another door opens when one closes. Denver began a lifelong friendship with Jim Henson after appearing as a guest on The Muppet Show. Denver hosted the Grammy Awards five times in the 1970s and 1980s and appeared on The Tonight Show as a guest host a few times.
A Man of Activism
Denver’s political outspokenness began in the mid-1970s. He co-founded The Hunger Project in 1977. In his 1975 song Calypso, he expressed his environmental concerns. As the 1970s drew to a close, he shifted his focus to humanitarian causes such as wildlife conservation, land conservation, hunger relief, and helping NASA in space exploration. It was as if he realized he had reached the pinnacle of his musical career and needed to move on to something bigger and more important. From 1968 to 1971, Denver and his first wife, Annie, lived in Edina, Minnesota.
Some Little Gal’s Dad
Denver bought a home in Aspen, Colorado, after Rocky Mountain High’s success and lived there until his death. Zachary John, a boy, and Anna Kate, a girl, were adopted by Denver. The best thing about Denver, he once said, was 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.” Although he wrote it for Frank Sinatra, the song A Baby Just Like You is about little Zachary.
A Second, Brief Marriage
Denver and Martell divorced in 1982. He claimed that his professional obligations drove them apart. They were, however, too young and immature, according to Annie, to deal with his sudden success. Denver allegedly became abusive after their property settlement. He is said to have cut their bed in half with a chainsaw. Denver married Cassandra Delaney, an Australian actress, in 1988 after dating her for two years. The couple shared a home in Aspen, Colorado, and had a daughter named Jesse Belle. They were separated three years later. By 1993, they were divorced.
Laid-Back with a Record
Denver may have been a laid-back musician who wrote music about the mountains, but in the early 1990s, he got himself into some legal trouble. He pleaded guilty to a charge of drinking and driving in 1993. He was charged the following year again while still on probation. After crashing his Porsche into a tree in Aspen, he was charged with misdemeanor driving – also while under the influence. His case went all the way to a jury trial. On the second DUI charge, the trial ended in a hung jury in 1997.
A Fatal Test Ride
After his death in October 1997, the case was closed for good. The FAA decided in 1996 that Denver would no longer be allowed to fly planes. As a result of his failure to abstain from alcohol, the decision was made. And it would play a major role in his death… Denver was test flying an experimental plane he had recently purchased from a man in Santa Maria on October 12, 1997. That afternoon, he practiced touch-and-and-goes before taking the plane to California for a spin. His test ride was ultimately his last.
Why Did His Plane Crash?
The plane nose-dived into the water less than half an hour into the flight. Denver was discovered floating near the plane’s debris by search and rescue crews dispatched to the scene. It was later confirmed that his death was instantaneous due to the impact of the crash. While his death was certain, the reason for it remained a mystery. There were a lot of unanswered questions… Several factors contributed to the crash and, as a result, Denver’s death. The first issue was that Denver had not refueled the plane.
He Didn’t Refuel
He may have thought there was enough fuel for a quick spin, but the aircraft’s design required the pilot to unbuckle and completely turn around to switch the secondary fuel tank valve. Denver reportedly declined the refueling offer, claiming that he would use autopilot to keep the plane level while turning the fuel selector valve. Experts believe he did so by extending his foot onto the right rudder pedal, causing the plane to turn downward.
His Last Words
According to a National Transportation Safety Board representative, Denver did not 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 he was adjusting his transponder, which is a device that sends out signals to the tower so that air traffic controllers can see an aircraft on their screens. George Petterson, a safety board investigator, said, “He was sending the transponder signal.” Then he asked, “Do you have it now?” revealing John Denver’s final words.
So Fast, So Light, So Unusual
They had tried to call Denver back when they saw it on the screen, but his signal had vanished at 1728 hours (5:28 p.m.). “There had been no indication of any trouble.” Witnesses reported seeing Denver’s plane flying 500 feet above the water when it suddenly crashed. Then, 200 yards off Point Pinos, it disintegrated on impact. Because the plane is so fast, light, and unusual, veteran pilots of similar planes believe several factors could have caused the crash.
Anything But Safe and Reliable
Some speculated that if the front wing had broken off, the small plane would have lost control and plummeted to the ground. According to a veteran Long-EZ pilot, Denver could have been so preoccupied with properly setting his radar systems that he didn’t notice the plane heading toward the sea. Denver’s experimental plane turned out to be anything but safe and dependable. Between 1983 and 1996, the Long-EZ aircraft were involved in 61 accidents, according to Canard Aviators, a group of home-built aircraft enthusiasts. Nineteen of the 61 incidents resulted in fatalities.
Styrofoam, Fiberglass, and Metal
According to experts on the Long-EZ, the plane is not manufactured by a single company. Instead, people purchase plans and construct their own planes out of Styrofoam, fiberglass, and metal. It can cruise at nearly 200 mph thanks to its rear propeller and front wing. Denver, according to experts, purchased the plane on the used-plane market. Denver’s plane was later discovered to be designed by Elbert “Burt” Rutan, who is best known for designing the long-winged Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world without refueling.
I’ll Be Back Soon
It’s unclear whether Denver was aware of any of this information about the plane’s history, but it’s clear that he expected to return soon. Denver told people at the airport before boarding his nearly 10-year-old plane that he had enough fuel for an hour or so in the air. He even left his Porsche with the top down in the parking lot, presumably expecting to return in a short time. Denver’s body was described as “badly mangled” by Coast Guard officials. Fingerprints on file in Colorado we’re used to identifying it.
An Airplane Enthusiast
Aspen was then to hold a memorial service. The news of John Denver’s death broke the hearts of many people across the country. “His soaring music evoked the grandeur of our landscape and the simple warmth of human love,” President Clinton said in a statement. According to Paul Shefrin, a spokesman for Denver’s city, the singer has been flying for over 20 years and owns a LearJet in addition to the Long-EZ. Denver had another plane – a two-seater Christen Eagle with high performance. It was parked in the Monterey airport’s hangar.
Under the Influence
Denver was clearly a fan, but his piloting license was in jeopardy due to his DUI history. Of course, he was not legally permitted to fly. Despite his record, autopsy reports indicated that he had not been drinking on the day of the crash. Even though he was sober at the time, theories about the flight’s purpose circulated. The widely held belief is that Denver deliberately crashed the plane. Why? He was severely depressed, according to the story, and was looking for the right way to call it a day.
Leaving Behind a Legacy
When the governor of Colorado learned of Denver’s death, he ordered all state flags to be lowered to half-mast in honor of his accomplishments. In his honor, the state of Colorado erected a bronze statue at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Aspen hosts a week-long John Denver celebration with live music, tours of his home, and old radio broadcasts on Denver’s death anniversary.
Songwriters Hall of Fame
Denver left an indelible mark on the world. He had recorded and released around 300 songs by the time he died, 200 of which he composed himself. He sold more than 33 million records worldwide. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996. Unfortunately, Denver wasn’t the only musician who died in a plane crash. Take, for example, Otis Redding’s story…