Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. was born in Roswell, New Mexico on December 31, 1943 the son of a US Air Force Officer. Henry Jr. studied architecture at Texas Tech, but in 1963 he headed to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of a career in folk music that had begun when his grandmother gave him her old guitar when he was 11. Friends wisely suggested that Henry Deutschendorf was not a name that rolled off the tongue and that he should probably consider changing it, so John Denver he became.
He got his first break as a singer in 1965 when he was selected from 250 applicants to lead the Mitchell Trio, and at almost the same time, he hit the mainstream as a songwriter when Peter, Paul and Mary recorded Leaving on a Jet Plane which gave them an international hit, and their first Number One.
In the late sixties, and on through the seventies, Denver had a string of hits, like Take Me Home, Country Roads,Rocky Mountain High and Annie's Song. His voice wasn’t particularly stunning or universally admired (indeed, on the Contractual Obligation album before the track was removed for legal reasons, The Monty Python crew suggested strangling him as an improvement) , but he wrote songs that he (and his audience) could sing effectively and that tended to be simple, upbeat and celebratory – feel-good songs. He celebrated nature, the environment, the small joys of the simple life, with songs like Calypso about the boat that carried Jacques Cousteau and his crew of environmentalists, and Thank God, I’m a Country Boy, the title of which speaks for itself.
Cheesy the music may be, sentimental it certainly is, but Denver's popularity since the early 1970s can’t be denied. His record sales include 14 gold albums and 8 platinum albums in the States alone, and his success extended across Europe and the Antipodes. Denver is one of the top five selling recording artists in the history of the music industry.
He toured around the world, including accepting an invitation from the Soviet Union of Composers to perform in the U.S.S.R. This led to a concert tour in 1985, and he returned in 1987 to play a benefit concert for victims of Chernobyl. He was also the first Western artist to play a multi city tour of China.
In other fields of entertainment, Denver co-starred with George Burns in the movie Oh God! and played various TV roles as well as making many guest TV appearances. His Christmas special John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together is often rated a classic.
Denver was also a dedicated environmentalist and humanitarian. In 1976, he co-founded The Windstar Foundation, a non-profit environmental education and research centre, served as a member of the Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger, was one of five founders of The Hunger Project, and, a member of the fact-finding delegation which toured African countries suffering drought and starvation for both The Hunger Project and UNICEF. In 1984, he testified against censorship of all kinds at the PMCR congressional hearings. He also established Plant-It 2000, a reforestation project encouraging the planting of trees all over the globe. 100,000 trees were planted under the aegis of the organisation in its first year of operation.
This wasn’t the extent of his work though. He supported the National Wildlife Federation, Save the Children, the Cousteau Society, Friends of the Earth, the Human/Dolphin Foundation and many others, and was awarded the Presidential "World Without Hunger" Award.
His commitment to environmental causes was furthered in 1995 with The WildLife Concert, a multi-media event to celebrate the centenary of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Denver also served on the WCS Board of Advisors.
Denver collected many awards including the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Music Award, "For a life's work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity." He was the first non-classical musician to receive it.
Denver had huge interest in space (he was awarded NASA’s public service medal for “helping increase awareness of space exploration by the people of the world."), and pursued many hobbies, particularly outdoorsy things like nature photography, backpacking, hiking, climbing and fishing. He was also a keen golfer, and was a regular guest at the Bob Hope Celebrity Classic as well as hosting his own annual Pro-Am Celebrity Golf Tournament.
Perhaps, however, his greatest passion was to fly, a skill he learned from his father, and it was in a plane he died. He was the sole occupant of his experimental Denverís plane when it crashed into Monterey Bay on Sunday October 12, 1997. Identification of the singer was difficult, finally being confirmed through fingerprint evidence. The National Transportation Safety Board investigation found no drugs or alcohol present at the autopsy, although it also stated that Denver was flying without a valid pilot’s license after the Federal Aviation Administration for violating a prior FAA order to refrain from drinking. The investigation concluded that Denver had taken off with insufficient fuel in his primary tank, and had inadvertently put the plane into a roll from which he couldn’t recover when he had difficulty switching to his backup tank. He was 53.
Discography – US Albums
1997 All Aboard
1995 The Wildlife Concert
1991 Different Directions
1990 Christmas Like A Lullaby
1990 The Flower That Shattered The Stone
1990 Earth Songs
1988 Higher Ground
1986 One World
1985 Dreamland Express
1984 Greatest Hits Volume #3
1983 Rocky Mountain Holiday
1983 It's About Time
1982 Seasons Of The Heart
1981 Some Days Are Diamonds
1979 A Christmas Together
1979 John Denver
1977 I Want To Live
1977 Greatest Hits Volume #2
1975 Rocky Mountain Christmas
1975 An Evening With John Denver
1974 Back Home Again
1973 Farewell Andromeda
1973 Greatest Hits
1972 Rocky Mountain High
1971 Poems, Prayers And Promises
1970 Whose Garden Was This
1970 Take Me To Tomorrow
1969 Rhymes And Reasons
Discography: Non-US and Mitchell Trio
1965 The Mitchell Trio: That's The Way It's Gonna Be
1965 The Mitchell Trio: Violets Of Dawn
1966 The Mitchell Trio: This Mad World Of Ours
1967 The Mitchell Trio: Alive!
1972 Carolina In My Mind
1974 The John Denver Radio Show
1975 The 2nd John Denver Radio Show
1976 Live In London
1978 Live At The Sydney Opera House
1985 The John Denver Holiday Radio Show
1989 Stonehaven Sunrise
1995 Take Me Home
1996 Love Again AKA Unplugged AKA A Celebration Of Life
1997 The John Denver Collection
1997 The Best Of John Denver Live
Film and TV
1971 McCloud (TV Series)
1973 The John Denver Show (TV Series)
1976 The Muppet Show (TV Appearance)
1977 Oh, God! (Film)
1980 John Denver and the Muppets (TV Appearance)
1984 Salute to Lady Liberty (TV Appearance)
1984 In Concert at the Met (TV Appearance)
1986 The Leftovers (TV Series)
1986 The Christmas Gift (TV Special)
1987 Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas (TV Appearance)
1987 Foxfire (TV Series)
1987 Fire and Ice (TV -- narration)
1988 Higher Ground (TV)
1990 The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson (TV)
1991 Montana Christmas Skies (TV Appearance)
1995 John Denver: The Wildlife Concert (Video)
1997 Walking Thunder (Film)