John Denver Biography
Last updated: 11/18/2012 12:03:05 PM
In a career that has spanned more than two decades, John Denver earned international acclaim as a songwriter, performer, actor and humanitarian. Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. began his career in the 1960s as an aspiring folk musician in the clubs of Los Angeles. The son of a U.S. Air Force officer, John took his performing name from the premier Rocky Mountain city in the state where he eventually made his home.
Denver's first major break came when he was chosen from 250 other hopefuls as lead singer for the popular Mitchell Trio, with whom he sang for two years. His songwriting skills were noted when Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his "Leaving On A Jet Plane," which became their first Number One hit.
Less than two years later, Denver was himself zooming up the Pop charts with "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," "Annie's Song," "Back Home Again," "Thank God I'm A Country Boy," "Calypso" and more, solidifying his position as one of the top stars of the decade. Many of his songs tapped into the growing appreciation and concern for the environment, which has continued as a matter of major importance for Denver and for us all.
Denver's popularity since the early 1970s may be measured in record sales that few other artists have achieved, including 14 gold albums and 8 platinum albums in the U.S. alone. He has had many gold and platinum sales overseas as well, in countries including Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. John Denver is one of the top five recording artists in the sales history of the music industry.
Denver's concert tours reached millions globally, from the U.S. and Canada throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the Orient and the United Kingdom... his travels crossing ideological lines, as well. In 1984, he was invited by the Soviet Union of Composers to perform in their country. The success of that visit led to a concert tour of the U.S.S.R. in 1985. These were the first performances by an American artist since the suspension, at that time, of cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. He returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1987 to do a benefit concert for the victims of Chernobyl. Denver was the first artist from the West to do a multi-city tour of mainland China, in October 1992. He was pleased and somewhat astonished to discover how popular and well-known his songs were with the Chinese. "Country Roads," he was told, "is the most famous song written in the West."
"My music and all my work stem from the conviction that people everywhere are intrinsically the same," Denver said in a 1995 interview. "When I write a song, I want to take the personal experience or observation that inspired it and express it in as universal a way as possible. I'm a global citizen. I've created that for myself, and I don't want to step away from it. I want to work in whatever I do - my music, my writing, my performing, my commitments, my home and personal life - in a way that is directed towards a world in balance, a world that creates a better quality of life for all people."
This, among other dedications, led to the establishment of the Windstar Foundation, a non-profit environmental education and research center co-founded by Denver in 1976 that works toward a sustainable future for the world.
Not just a fine performer, Denver's music clearly reflects the conscience of a concerned citizen, a man working for the improvement of the quality of life for all peoples - environmentally, socially and politically.
"One of the great things about my success is that it's given greater visibility to what I'm doing, and what I've continued to do throughout my career, about the things which are so important to me: the environment and the sense of global community which we're moving closer and closer to, whether we recognize it or not," Denver said in the same interview.
He served as a member of the Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger. He was one of the five founders of The Hunger Project, and, as part of both that commitment and to UNICEF as well, he was a member of the fact-finding delegation which toured African countries devastated by drought and starvation. Denver was awarded the Presidential "World Without Hunger" Award; he supported the National Wildlife Federation, Save the Children, the Cousteau Society, Friends of the Earth and the Human/Dolphin Foundation, to name just a few.
Denver created "Plant-It 2000," a plan that urges people all over the world to plant as many trees as possible by the year 2000. This reforestation project aimed at encouraging citizens everywhere to recognize the necessity of replenishing what the world has wantonly destroyed. "Plant-It 2000" met with instant response from people everywhere in all walks of life, including major foundations, businesses and institutions. Nearly 100,000 trees have been planted in its first year of operation.
Denver's enthusiasm for the environment musically came to life with The WildLife Concert. In 1995, Denver performed this multi-media event (TV special, album, home video, international tour) in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The WCS, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, is one of the largest conservation organizations in the world. Denver served on its Board of Advisors.
"They're doing more hands-on work in protecting species and habitats than any single organization in the world," Denver explained. "But few people know about the Society and the incredibly good work that they do. Helping to produce this concert marks the first time that they've gone public in this way, and it was truly thrilling for me to have them as a sponsor."
Denver's numerous tributes and awards include acknowledgements as the Number One recording artist in the U.S., Favorite Music Performer, People's Choice Awards, AGVA Singing Star of the Year, Yamaha Music Award and recognition from many governments for his concert about global hunger problems. In the summer of 1993, Denver was the recipient of the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Music Award, given to him "For a life's work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity." It was the first time a non-classical music artist had been so honored.
Denver's movie debut in "Oh God!" (with George Burns) was a solid hit, as were his TV roles that included starring in "Foxfire" with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. He also starred and guest starred in many TV specials - with such notable artists as Itzhak Perlman, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Julie Andrews and the beloved frog, Kermit. Indeed, Denver's Christmas special "John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together," is considered a classic. In 1993, Denver completed his first movie since "Oh, God!" called "Walking Thunder," it stars him as he most likes to be - in country clothes, under an open sky.
Many people know of Denver's two passions: flying and outer space. He has flown Air Force F-15 fighters and the Space Shuttle simulator. NASA awarded him its public service medal for helping "increase awareness of space exploration by the people of the world."
A fine photographer as well, Denver photographed people and places all over the world and showed his photos professionally, often in connection with speeches made at colleges, universities and government and business facilities across the country.
Denver immensely enjoyed the out-of-doors - backpacking, hiking and climbing. He loved to fish and was found with a rod and reel as often as a guitar, turning up every so often on fishing programs on TV. An avid golfer, Denver was a yearly guest at the Bob Hope Celebrity Classic and hosted his own annual Pro-Am Celebrity Golf Tournament in Tucson every January.
There is not much that Denver has not achieved. One of the world's best known and best-loved performers, he is a master communicator who can reach audiences regardless of geography, economics, politics and language. He was the true international figure dedicated to world peace and the elimination of hunger. Denver knew better than most that his gifts were gifts indeed. "Music does bring people together; it allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same."