Through the '70s, country-pop singer-songwriter John Denver was one of the most successful recording artists in the world. Of his albums, 12 are gold and four are platinum, and in the mid-'70s he had a string of gold singles.
Denver was raised in an Air Force family and lived in various Southern and Southwestern towns. In his early teens his grandmother gave him a 1910 Gibson acoustic guitar. He enrolled at Texas Tech in 1961, majoring in architecture and playing in local clubs. In 1964 he dropped out of college and moved to L.A., and after he adopted Denver as his stage name, he replaced Chad Mitchell in the Chad Mitchell Trio in 1965. The Trio, a major draw on the early-'60s hootenanny circuit, was $40,000 in debt upon Denver's arrival, which he later helped it pay back. The group recorded for Mercury (which later repackaged the results under Denver's name as Beginnings) and toured widely. At a 1966 Trio concert at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, Denver met sophomore Ann Martell, who married him the next year (they would divorce in 1983).
Rhymes and Reasons included "Leaving on a Jet Plane," a #1 hit that year for Peter, Paul and Mary; Denver shared their producer, Milt Okun. His own rise began with the million-selling "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (#2, 1971). After he had moved to Aspen, Colorado, Rocky Mountain High sold over a million copies. The #1 "Annie's Song" (written for his wife) and "Sunshine on My Shoulders," plus "Back Home Again" (#5) made Denver the best-selling pop musician of 1974. Greatest Hits sold over 10 million copies worldwide and stayed in the Top 100 for two years. The governor of Colorado proclaimed John Denver the state's poet laureate.
While the hits continued —"Thank God I'm a Country Boy" (#1, 1975), "I'm Sorry" (#1, 1975) —Denver tried TV and film appearances, with variety specials, dramatic roles, and a screen debut costarring with George Burns in 1977's Oh, God! He started Windsong Records (distributed by RCA) in 1976, and signed the Starland Vocal Band ("Afternoon Delight," #1, 1976), whose Bill and Taffy Danoff had written "Take Me Home . . ." with him.
Denver did volunteer work for ecological causes, the ERA, and space exploration (he was a board member of the National Space Institute) and against nuclear power. In 1984 he made the first of several tours of the thenPSoviet Union; he recorded a special version of "Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?)," from One World, in Moscow with Soviet singer Alexandre Gradsky. In 1987 he returned to the USSR, where he performed a benefit concert for victims of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
From the mid-'80s until his death in 1997, Denver never regained a commercial foothold (1985's Dreamland Express reached only #90, 1990's The Flower That Shattered the Stone, only #185); he had a brief return to prominence in late summer 1993, when he was arrested for drunk driving in Aspen, Colorado. The following year he was arrested on similar charges. A second marriage ended in divorce in 1991. As his musical career waned, Denver devoted more attention to humanitarian causes and his first love, flying. In 1993 Denver became the first nonclassical musician given the Albert Schweitzer Music Award, for lifetime humanitarianism. In 1994 he published Take Me Home: An Autobiography. A pilot for over 20 years, Denver died on October 12, 1997, when the experimental plane he was flying suddenly dove into Monterey Bay, killing him instantly. After his death, some of those close to him revealed that Denver had suffered bouts of depression and insecurity throughout his life. His ashes were spread throughout his beloved Rocky Mountains.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).