A John Denver Homepage

When you dominate popular music they way John Denver did, no one can call you "lucky" any more. When you're in the charts for a decade and then some, when you sell out concert after concert, when you set a house record at venues like the Universal Amphitheater, appear on every major television variety show, and get on the cover of just about every major magazine, then it means you're speaking for - and to - a generation. Inevitably by then, the self-appointed pundits, critics and taste gurus will hate you, but it doesn't matter because you're touching the lives of the people who actually buy the records, go to the concerts and listen to the radio.

John Denver always offered more than music. Once he caught your ear with a melody, he had something he wanted to share with you. Taken together, his songs come close to offering an integrated vision of how life can be lived, as well as an invitation to get concerned about our world, and see beyond ourselves. His work was, and still is, an unfailingly upbeat celebration of life and its possibilities. He has never shied away from sharing what he felt and what he knew; nor has he shied away from exposing his tender and vulnerable side, no matter the cost.
One recurring theme was that life must be lived more simply, ideally in a rural setting. "Most of the critics who write negatively about me," John said in 1977, "are people working in big cities, on big newspapers or magazines. I come in singing about the mountains, the wilderness, about love and family." In the way he looked, in what he said, and in the very elements of his music, John Denver offered us a vision of America before the fall. He held out the tantalizing promise of an existence in harmony with nature. He offered a sense of community, and (that most overused and abused of phrases) a return to basics. His music seemed to ask the question: What do we really need? It's probably emblematic of our times that his career slumped in the 1980s, when the answer to the question of what we really needed was: Everything!

John Denver was part of the original "Generation X." He was post-Elvis, but pre-Beetles, or, as one commentator put it, "somewhere between stuffing telephone booths, and doping and protesting."
John's unrootedness ran even deeper because there was never anywhere that really felt like home. Grandpa was a German immigrant who settled in Oklahoma. John's father, "Dutch" Deutschendorf, was a career Air Force pilot instructor. John was born Henry John Deutschendorf on New Year's Eve 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, where Dutch was stationed at the time. After that, the family lived in Japan, Tucson, Arizona, Montgomery, Alabama, and Fort Worth, Texas. They stayed seven years in Tucson - that was the longest anywhere. Air Force kids weren't really accepted in their adopted hometowns. They were outsiders; everyone knew they wouldn't be around for long, and weren't really from there. John once threw a party and no one came. His grandmother gave him a guitar when he was 12, and music became his companion and consolation.

In 1964, John left Texas Tech in Lubbock, where he had studied architecture, and went to Los Angeles. He got a job as a draftsman, and quickly integrated himself into the folk music scene. In the early 1960s, folk music was one of the few viable alternatives if you didn't want to sing about itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikinis.
Randy Sparks, who led the New Christy Minstrels, liked John's voice, introduced him around, and told him that he needed to change his name. So, around 1965, John Deutschendorf became John Denver. Several names had come up in discussion, but John says, "Denver was the [one] I disliked the least. I liked the connotation of what goes along with 'Denver.' The mountains, that kind of country." He got a few solo jobs, and there was talk for a while that he might join The Byrds, but when he finally joined a group on a permanent basis, it was The Chad Mitchell Trio.
Chad Mitchell and two fellow sophomores at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, formed a trio that had a little more political and social savvy than many of the other early 1960s folk groups. They were always very popular in Washington, DC, which says a lot about their clientele and their repertoire. In 1962, they attracted attention with their recording of "The John Birch Society." Then, in 1968, Chad Mitchell decided to forsake folk for Broadway, but he agreed that the other two could keep the name "Mitchell Trio" so long as at least one of them remained. It was left to their producer, Milt Okun, to find a replacement.

Okun was already a legend in folk music circles. An academically trained musician, he had developed an interest in traditional music in the late 1950s, and had recorded folk LPs for several companies before he became musical director and producer for the Mitchell Trio. Later, he was Peter, Paul & Mary's producer. When the word got out that he was auditioning for someone for someone to replace Chad Mitchell, he got 250 demo tapes. There was something in John Denver's tape that impressed him. "I loved his personality," Okun said later. "his voice was not as good as Chad's, but he lit up the room."

Joining the Mitchell trio was an education for John Denver - a musical and political education. "The political satire that they did really opened me up," he said later. "Jesus, at the beginning, people would have to explain to me why a line was funny, why everybody was laughing."
The Trio was almost constantly on the road. John became a familiar sight in folk music circles. Once he had gained a little confidence, he began to introduce his own songs into the group's repertoire. His first hit came with "Leaving On A Jet Plane." It was written in 1967 during a particularly desolate layover in Washington. "I wrote the song with my soul wide open, and my mind picturing the scene as if it stood before me, real enough to touch," John wrote later in his autobiography.

"I wrote... not so much out of the experience of feeling that way for someone, as out of the longing to have someone to love."

The Mitchell Trio recorded the song in 1967. Spanky & Our Gang and Peter, Paul & Mary covered it that year, but it wasn't until 1969 that Peter, Paul & Mary's version became a No. 1 hit. By then, the Mitchell Trio was no more. Dissension, lawsuits, changing times and mounting debt had undone it.
"Leaving On A Jet Plane" had yet to be a hit when Milt Okun tried to pitch John Denver as a solo artist to the major and minor record companies. John reckons that he was turned away by 16 companies before RCA signed him.
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Copyright 1996, Colin Escott and RCA records