In the 1970s, John Denver became one of America’s most popular folk singers for his earnest melodies and gentle acoustic arrangements. With hit singles like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” he spoke to a side of America that appreciated rustic aesthetics but without the volatility and political angles of traditional folk or its ‘60s revivalists.
Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in 1943, in Roswell, N.M. After moving to Los Angeles, he joined the folk group Chad Mitchell Trio, whose extensive tour schedule inspired the lyrics to “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which Peter Paul and Mary would turn into a major hit in 1969. His solo career took off immediately after.
Over his career, he scored 14 gold albums, eight of which went platinum. Over just a year and a half during his 1970s peak, the folk singer released four number one singles and three Billboard-chart-topping albums. His “Greatest Hits” compilation has sold well over 10 million copies. Though his career dropped off in the ‘80s, he devoted his time to various charitable causes including environmental groups and various hunger-fighting endeavors. He was also among the first American artists to extensively tour in communist countries including the then-USSR, Vietnam and China.
Denver’s image wasn’t entirely as fresh-faced as his music might imply. He was twice arrested for drunk driving, and admitted to infidelities that contributed to two divorces. Nevertheless, fans poured out en masse after his death in a 1997 plane crash in Monterey Bay. Denver was an avid pilot, and was behind the controls of a home-built Long-EZ plane he owned.