Whether we admit it or not, we all have a favorite John Denver
song. How could we not? Clarity of voice, poetry
of lyric, melodies of hope, longing, passion and pain, all these things were captured by Denver at one time or another. Universal appeal helped John become one of the most popular international recording artists of all time with a catalog in excess of 300 songs.
Unexpected death in a private plane accident on October 12, 1997, at age 53, ended John Denver’s time to walk among us, but happily his voice has yet to be silenced. Ten songs in particular still dance along the airwaves on radio, in stores, at weddings, in offices and in the quiet of the mind, solidifying Denver’s status as a music legend.
1. TAKE ME HOME COUNTRY ROADS
On a recent Monday night, “Take Me Home Country Roads,” the top grosser of all Denver hits, was featured on the Fox hit show, “Prison Break.” Not surprising. It is ranked among the most popular songs of the 20th century, a slot above “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Take Me Home Country Roads,” will likely find airplay well into the 21st century as well. Written by Bill and Tammy Danoff, it soared into the American psyche in 1971 on Denver’s album, “Poems, Prayers and Promises.”
2. ANNIE’S SONG
We’ve heard “Annie’s Song” a dozen, nay a hundred times and as long as we go to weddings, we’ll keep hearing it. Although a prerequisite of cool manhood to scoff at the soaring emotionalism of such a song, real men who have known love understand what Denver means when he says, “You fill up my senses like a night in a forestÃ¢Â?Â¦” Should we all be so lucky at least once in a lifetime! The song is found originally on side B of the 1974 album, “Back Home Again.”
3. THANK GOD I’M A COUNTRY BOY
In June, 1974, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” rang out over the airwaves and zoomed to the top of the charts. Epitomizing a purely “fun” song, kids and parents alike tapped toes to the rippin’ fiddle and exuberant vocals.
4. ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
How complicated life has become since Denver wrote Rocky Mountain High in 1972. Reportedly Denver was no stranger to pot, after all he came of age in the 60’s and was a musician, but the high he spoke of in this song was sparked by an elevated experience reaching far beyond those offered by drugs. With or without drugs, few spirits soar to the heights Denver reached in Rocky Mountain High, “coming home to a place he’d never been before.” Far out. Really really far out.
5. LEAVING ON A JET PLANE
The breakout song for John Denver as a songwriter, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” was recorded in 1971 by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Denver recorded the tune himself on his first RCA album in 1969, but it was Peter, Paul and Mary who sent to song soaring on the charts.
6. SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS
A number one hit in the winter of 1974, the title says it all. A maudlin, but much watched TV movie, SUNSHINE, featured a bevy of Denver hits, including “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” introducing Denver to an even larger audience to his music. Record sales boomed as the familiar mix of melancholy and optimism fit in perfectly with American sensibilities during the waning years of the Viet Nam war.
7 & 8. CALYPSO/I’M SORRY
On Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW one summer night in 1975, accompanied only by his twelve-string guitar, John Denver yanked awake a yawning nation with the joyous strains of “Calypso.” How could a single person with one guitar make such a full sound? Those privileged to see Denver perform live, whether at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, on television, or at one of his many sold-out arena concerts marveled at his ability to hold an audience in his palm with his voice and a single guitar.
The B-side of “Calypso”, entitled “I’m Sorry,” shot to number one on the Billboard charts right along with its flip side. Both tunes appeared on the WINDSONG album, published by RCA in September, 1975.
9. Although never released as a single“Poems, Prayers and Promises,” from the 1971 platinum album on the same name, appeared on twelve subsequent albums. Condensing a lifetime of philosophical ponderings in a few lyrical stanzas, backed by a gentle, bright guitar, “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” is a masterpiece of understatement.
10. RHYMES AND REASONS. The title of song of Denver’s first album for RCA, released in 1969, remains a favorite with fans even today. Despite being written early in his career, many feel it reveals some of John’s most mature song writing.
To those interested in adding a Denver CD to their collection, the top choices would be “An Evening With John Denver,” a live album from 1975, and “John Denver’s Greatest Hits,” from 1974 which sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
This author had the pleasure of meeting John Denver backstage after a concert in Indianapolis in 1985. To no avail, I’ve spent 10 years trying to find the pictures of John giving me a small kiss on the cheek. Although my clumsy archiving prevents me from sharing a photo, I can share one tidbit: Unlike most stars you meet in person, John Denver, at 6 feet tall, was actually bigger than you would think, quite good-looking, with a laugh would make anyone’s day. I’ll bet you already guessed that last one.