John Denver - Singer, Songwriter, and Environmentalist Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

John Denver - Singer, Songwriter, and Environmentalist

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John Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr in Roswell, New Mexico, on New Year's Eve, 1943. The son of an Air Force pilot, he spent his teenage years in Fort Worth. He was a player in his school's football team for three years, and sang in the chorus of the school choir. He taught himself to play using grandmother's old guitar, and was also a master of the 12-string flat-top1. His later interest in aeroplanes may have been because of his father's career in the Air Force.

John describes himself as a lonely child:

I was always the new kid in town. When we lived in Arizona, I had more time alone than other kids, so I would go out into the desert. When we moved to Alabama, I'd go out into the woods. So nature became very important to me.

Bob Jewitt, an old schoolfriend who played in a high school band with the young guitarist, gives a high appraisal of John:

He could play anything, and he could imitate, copy anyone. That's what was amazing. He could hear a record and then turn around and play it exactly like it was.

John attended college in Texas and studied architecture. He took a job as a draftsman in Los Angeles by day, and at night he performed on the folk-club scene. He eventually recorded some demos and changed his name.


John Denver applied for the job of Chad Mitchell's replacement in the popular Mitchell Trio. He beat over 250 other applicants and he remained their lead singer before leaving to concentrate on solo work. He was the first artist in the history of RCA records to sell more than 10 million copies of an album (John Denver's Greatest Hits).

Although selling millions of albums worldwide, his only 'Number One' single in the UK was 'Annie's Song', which he wrote for his first wife, in October 1974. In total, he achieved four multi-platinum LP's, six platinum albums, six gold singles and over 30 chart hits in the USA.

At his concerts, he would often recite poetry in between singing songs. Poetry written straight from his heart. 'The Ambulance in the Valley' was particularly poignant. John visited Russia and he was so moved by the war cemetery at Prekovjev that he wrote the song 'Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?)', the words of which are particularly relevant for anyone interested in passing on planet Earth to future generations. The powerful video of 'Let Us Begin' moved viewers all over the world.

I thought that I might be able to do something to further the cause of East/West understanding. It seemed like a good time to see the face behind all the propaganda. The Russians say that the first swallow of spring won't make the weather for the whole season, but it can mark the turn toward a warmer climate. I tried to be that swallow.

The success of his visit paved the way for a concert tour of the USSR in 1986.

John said about his own songwriting:

I write and sing songs about my country, my home, my sense of family and the joy that is possible in life. I sing about what I feel and what I know.

He performed on recordings with other artists including Karen Carpenter, Travis Tritt, Glen Campbell, Placido Domingo, Olivia Newton-John and The Muppets. His recording of 'Let Us Begin' with well-known Soviet singer Alexandre Gradsky, was the first time a Russian artist was allowed to perform on a record with a major American singer. John returned to the Soviet Union in 1987 to do a benefit concert for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

His Loves

John Denver loved nature, flying (he was a licensed pilot) and his family. He was an ardent opponent of whaling. He was a man of peace, and spoke out against governments who advocated war. He campaigned for global peace and supported Greenpeace and Amnesty International. He was also a member of the Presidential 'Commission on World and Domestic Hunger', visiting Africa long before the likes of Geldof and Bono to highlight the plight of starving people. He was awarded the Presidential 'World Without Hunger' Award, and his concern for the environment inspired him to establish the Windstar Foundation, a non-profit environmental education and research centre. During the 1980s, John was still recording but less frequently. He used his high-profile celebrity status to help publicise charities like the National Wildlife Federation, Save the Children, the Friends of the Earth, the The Human/Dolphin Foundation and UNICEF. While a guest of Jacques-Yves Cousteau on board his research ship Calypso, John wrote 'Calypso' and generously donated the royalties to the Cousteau Society.

I want to do anything I can to improve the quality of all life on this planet.

John was also interested in the space programme; he witnessed the launch of the first internationally-manned space flight. His enthusiasm for space travel was so great that he took and passed NASA's physical examination to determine mental and physical fitness required for space travel. He got a great thrill from learning to use the shuttle simulator, and he became one of the leading candidates to be the 'first civilian in space'. John was planning to write a song while up in orbit, but circumstances kept him from joining Challenger - the ill-fated expedition which exploded during take-off in 1986, killing all on board.

John loved outdoor pursuits: backpacking, hiking, skiing and climbing; and outdoor sports such as softball, fishing and golfing. After he had spent a night outside with his family to watch the Perseid meteor shower, John wrote 'Rocky Mountain High':

I've seen it raining fire from the sky...

The Hits of John Denver

  • Rhymes And Reasons
  • John Denver's Greatest Hits - this album won him an RCA Records' 'Premier Artist Award'
  • Back Home Again - Quadruple platinum-selling album2
  • Windsong - Triple platinum
  • An Evening with John Denver - Double platinum
  • Poems, Prayers and Promises - Platinum
  • Rocky Mountain High - Platinum
  • An Evening With John Denver - Platinum
  • A Christmas Together (John Denver and the Muppets) - Platinum
  • I Want To Live - Platinum
  • Spirit - Platinum

Pete Townshend of The Who once commented:

There are moments when I've listened to John Denver and he has actually got across to me the joy he feels from standing in the Colorado Mountains.


  • Poet Laureate of Colorado.
  • 1974 - Cashbox's No 1 Album seller, No 1 Artist.
  • ASCAP Award for Top Album of the Year.
  • 1974/75 - Record Worlds' 'Top Male Recording Artist'
  • 1975 - ABC's Bi-centennial Music Award for 'Top Male Vocalist' by the National Press
  • Country Music Song of the Year (for 'Back Home Again')
  • 'People's Choice' Awards 'Favourite Musical Performer'
  • AGVA Singing Star of the Year
  • 1977 - 'People's Choice' Award.
  • 1982 - Carl Sandburg's People's Poet Award.
  • 1993 - Albert Schweitzer Music Award
  • 1996 - Songwriter's Hall of Fame


John Denver was the first recipient of the World Ecology Medal awarded by the International Center for Tropical Ecology at the University of Missouri-St Louis. Since his tragic death in a plane crash3 on 12 October, 1997, they award a research scholarship annually in his memory.

When John Denver's death was made public, Colorado governor Roy Romer ordered all state flags to be lowered to half-mast in tribute.

An intensely private family man, John Denver was married twice and had three children.

Celebrate living - the laughter that sings in the heart of a child, the freedom that flies to the call of the wild.
- John Denver
1Flat-top guitars have flat tops to their sound chambers. Usually, but not always, they have a single, round sound hole centrally located.2A platinum album is one million copies sold (USA).3An experimental light aircraft he was piloting ran out of fuel from the main tank and crashed into Monterey Bay.

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