From Deutschendorf to Denver

HIstory of Rock ‘N’ Roll — By Gary Theroux

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. was born the last day of 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, but grew up all over the country. His father, an Air Force pilot, constantly moved from one military base to another. The elder Deutschendorf set three world records in aviation, inspiring his son to also dream of taking to the sky. However, that was not to be, as the Air Force rejected Henry Jr. as too nearsighted. After his grandmother gave him a 1910 Gibson guitar, the young man turned to music, spending hours alone in his room — picking, singing and trying to act like Elvis Presley.

As a teenager, Henry began playing folk clubs around the southwest, billing himself — in tribute to his favorite city — as “John Denver.” In 1965, he beat out some 250 other applicants to replace Chad Mitchell in the Chad Mitchell Trio. Denver stayed with the renamed Mitchell Trio until they broke up in 1968.

John’s first solo album, “Rhymes and Reasons,” featured a song he wrote during his Mitchell days as “Babe, I Hate To Go.” Retitled “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” it became a chart-topping hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969. Two years later, Denver’s “Poems, Prayers & Promises” LP yielded “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

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That song was the result of John performing in Washington, D.C. with Bill and Taffy Danoff. After the concert, he was invited to join the couple at their home and almost didn’t make it — due to a car crash which sent him to the hospital with a thumb injury. When finally at the Danoffs, they played for John a song they’d only half completed writing and hoped to pitch to Johnny Cash. It was about the roads in West Virginia — a state none of the three had actually ever visited. Bill explained that the idea came from picture postcards mailed to him from that state by a friend. The couple sketched out the first draft of their creation on the road — while driving through Maryland.

The Danoffs almost didn’t play their tune for Denver, figuring it just wouldn’t fit his style. John, though, sensed its potential, helped polish off the song and then sang it onstage the following night. Audience reaction sparked John to next head to New York for a recording session — with Bill and Taffy along as background vocalists (they were billed on the label as “Fat City”). Released as a 45 that spring, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” sparked no action at all for many weeks. RCA finally called John to tell him his single was a flop. “No!” he said. “Keep working on it!” Remarkably, they did — and on August 18, the record was finally certified a million-seller — the singer-songwriter’s first of more than 40 pop, country and easy-listening hits.

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John Denver’s music was a cross between country, folk and pop. “I write songs about real things,” he said, “from the perspective that all people are the same and that these songs will touch them all in the same place. Most are ballads — modern-day folk songs. A lot are feel-good songs. Every once in a while I write a country song.” (Denver scored 27 country hits between 1971 and 1989.) His frequent use of such themes as love, nature and the simple pleasures of rural living sparked Baskin-Robbins in 1972 to manufacture a “natural” ice cream flavor named after one of Denver’s million-sellers. Not mentioned in the ad campaign was the fact that “Rocky Mountain High” had actually been inspired by an ice cream-free Colorado camping trip — on which John and his pals, up at Lake Williams, watched “fire in the sky” (the first Perseid meteor showers).

John Denver wrote nearly everything he recorded, pulling ideas from his own real-life triumphs and tragedies. That explains why so many of his hits document both the joyous start and slow-but-steady collapse of his 16-year marriage to the former Annie Martell. Yes, John’s mid-’70s status as the world’s best-selling recording artist did bring both fame and fortune — but the nonstop touring and endless separation from his family came at a heartbreaking price. The lady who’d filled up his senses in “Annie’s Song” and welcomed him “Back Home Again” wanted more than the simple sentiment expressed in those hits or one of his very last million-sellers, “I’m Sorry.” Annie locked John out of the house and divorced him in 1983.

During his 18 years in the spotlight, Denver sold more than 100 million LPs and singles, hosted Emmy-winning TV specials, headlined countless concerts and even co-starred with then 81-year old George Burns in the 1977 comedy feature “Oh God.” He also got the Danoffs a record deal of their own — as The Starland Vocal Band. In 1976, they hit No. 1 with their million-seller, “Afternoon Delight.”

John Denver RD CD coverIn 1996, I put together the 3-CD box set “John Denver: His Greatest Hits and Finest Performances” — and, for the liner notes, collected Denver’s comments on all 60 tracks in that collection. In our interview, which took place barely one year before the plane crash which took his life, I asked John how he would ultimately like to be remembered. He paused for a long time.

“I think what people will remember about me most are my songs,” he said. “I’ve worked really hard to find out just who I am. I’ve had to courage to do what I think is right — to be true to myself and write the things that come out of me. That is how I hope my children remember me. I hope that they can find something in there somewhere of value to them in their own lives.”

Gary Theroux researched, wrote, programmed and co-produced the legendary 52-hour Billboard award-winning radio rockumentary “The History of Rock ‘n Roll.” Today, over rewoundradio.com and supernovaradio.co, he hosts its 2½-minute feature version, which won the 2014 New York Festivals International Programming Award as “the world’s best online radio series.” © 2015 Pop Record Research.

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