Page Three


Album sales remained consistently strong, but the singles John released in 1973 didn't do as well. Then, at the beginning of 1974, RCA released "Sunshine On My Shoulders" from the three-year-old POEMS, PRAYERS AND PROMISES album. It got to No. 1 at the end of march. John had written the song in a fit of melancholy one late winter's day when he was living in Minnesota. It was re-released just as the war in Vietnam was winding down. "The song reached out and touched a deep chord of need in the country," he said. "Just when there was so much that was cosdting us dearly, here was a song that soared upward, and took its audience back home."
Its success set the stage for the BACK HOME AGAIN album, a No. 1 album which included "Annie's Song" (another No. 1 hit), "Sweet Surrender," "This Old Guitar" and, of course, the title song. It was not 1975, and John Denver was quite likely the biggest star in show business. Billboard magazine rated him the No. 1 artist in Pop, Easy Listening, Pop Singles, and Country LPs. His albums sold an astonishing 400,000 copies over just one weekend that year.
The WINDSONG album got to No. 1. The first single from the album, "I'm Sorry," got to No. 1 It was backed with "Calypso," named for the boat of the French underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. John had become friends with Cousteau, and the chorus of the song had come to him one night on deck. It took months to finish because John wanted the verses to feel classical and thus contrast with the sea chantyish chorus. Cousteau was very much John Denver's idea of a hero. He didn't sit and pontificate, or attend endless meetings and rallies, but went out and led by example. He exerted subtle, but definite, pressure, and he got results.
Now that he had a platform, John, like Cousteau, tried to use his success to share his views on the Earth, on politics, and on personal growth. "I don't just want to entertain people," he said. "I want to touch them." In 1976, he bought 1,000 acres of land in Snowmass, Colorado, for his Windstar Foundation, which was devoted to ecological causes.


"I don't just want to entertain people, I want to touch them."
John Denver


Inevitably, though, success brought its problems. There were now ceaseless demands on his time, and John had always been the kind of performer who worried over all the details of his shows down to the concession stands and the parking. The moments left for quiet reflection were few. He estimated that in 1976 he had just four weeks at home. Critics, who had been generally well-disposed toward him at the outset, now dismissed him as a Pollyanna and tried to find someone newer and angrier to love. The critics didn't matter now, thought. John had found his audience, and it had found him.
It wasn't until the late 1970s that John's success began to slip a little. Milt Okun, who had been John's producer from the days of the Chad Mitchell Trio, bowed out. John did a record in Nashville, from which "Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone)" was drawn. It renewed his credibility in the country charts, getting to No. 10, but John's tango with country radio was always an uncomfortable one. He was never quite able to come out and say "Thank God I'm A Country Singer," and that was what country radio needed to hear. Later, on John's final RCA Album, "Wild Montana Skies", his duet with Emmylou Harris, took him back into the country charts, peaking at No. 14 in 1983.
Several Weeks after "Some Days are Diamonds" was wrapped up, John and Annie began a long, painful separation that would lead to divorce. "Seasons Of The Heart" captured much of the hurt and personal disappointment that John felt as his marriage slowly foundered. "One time she was around when I was practicing 'Seasons Of The Heart,'" he wrote. "She said from her cold, hard, sarcastic place, 'Are you trying to tell me something?'" The later albums were sometimes cast in darker hues, perhaps as a result of the breakup in his marriage, perhaps simply as a result of getting older.

"Perhaps Love", Johns duet with the great Placido Domingo, was the great lost opportunity. John had planned to use the song on his Nashville album, but it was deemed unsuitable. Meanwhile, Milt Okun had met opera star Placido Domingo in London. At first, Okun tried to get Domingo to do a duet with flautist James Galway, whose version of "Anne's Song" had got to No. 3 in England. John would play guitar. That fell through, so Okun brought up the idea of a Placido Domingo duet with John Denver. "Perhaps Love" was one of the songs chosen. They reprised it during a joint television appearance on ABC's "20/20," but the record wasn't the success that it could have been. John attributes this to several factors, not least a dispute with Jerry Weintraub that, like his falling out with Anne, would soon end in divorce. Denver teamed up with French chanteuse Sylvie Vartan in 1984 for the duet "Love Again," peaking at No. 84. John reprised the song solo to much greater effect on the "one World" album.
By the time John left RCA in 1986, he had shed his old skin. The granny glasses were gone, as was his long hair, but "Flying For Me" shows that his message was still in tact. It seemed to draw together all he had been saying. The central image of flying made the connection to John Deutschendorf, son of Dutch Deutschendorf, the career Air Force man.
By this time, John was an accomplished pilot, trying to outrun Dutch's giant shadow. His concerns still ran from nuclear power and nuclear arms to world hunger. In fact, he had done so much more on behalf of the world's hungry than the superstars who banded together for a few minutes on "We Are The World," that his exclusion from the project was inexcusable. The hungry don't care who's chic and who's not.


"I don't really see the change in me as 'old' and 'new,'" John told a reporter from Saturday Review in 1985. "I see it as 'then' and 'now.' I've gone through a bunch stuff in the last several years, but my heart is still the same." He had been to China, Russia and Africa on missions of detente and mercy. The travel had given him a broader worldview than most of us will ever have. "I want people to look outside of the narrow focus we all get caught up in, and see that whether we live in Africa or Aspen, underneath we are all the same," he said.
Today his music, his recent autobiography, and lately his Internet site :), still carry the same message. There can be no doubt about who John Denver is, what he stands for, or what he has experienced on his journey. Perhaps no one has been so patently honest on record, or worn his heart so openly and proudly on his sleeve.

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This biography was written by Colin Escott and was published as the insert in the "Rocky Mountain Collection" (1996 RCA Records). HTMLitzing + background art and formatting, as well as fun airbrushing done by Eric Dalton

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