To those who bought records like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by the millions in the 1970s, John Denver was much more than just a great songwriter and performer. With his oversized glasses, bowl haircut and down vest, he was an unlikely fashion icon, and with his vocal environmentalism, he was the living embodiment of an outdoorsy lifestyle that many 20-something baby boomers would adopt as their own during the “Me” decade. There never was and there probably never will be a star quite like John Denver, who died on this day in 1997 when his experimental amateur aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay on the California coast.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., in 1943, not in the mountains of Colorado but in Roswell, New Mexico, John Denver rose to fame as a recording artist in 1971, when “Take Me Home, Country Roads” rose all the way to #2 on the Billboard pop chart. In fact, Denver already had a share in a #1 hit as the writer of “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” a chart-topper for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969. But it was his 1971 breakout as a performer of his own material that made him a household name. Over the course of the 1970s, John Denver earned five more top-10 singles, including the #1 hits “Sunshine On My Shoulders” (1974), “Annie’s Song” (1974), “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” (1975) and “I’m Sorry” (1975). Even more impressive, he released an astonishing 11 albums that were certified Platinum by the RIAA, making him one of the most successful recording artists of the 70s, and launching him into a successful career in film and television as well.
By the 1990s, Denver was still a popular touring musician, though he was no longer recording new material with significant commercial success. Over the course of his career, he had become an accomplished private pilot with more than 2,700 hours on various single- and multi-engine aircraft, with both an instrument and a Lear Jet rating. On October 12, 1997, however, he was flying an aircraft with which he was relatively unfamiliar, and with which he had previously experienced control problems, according to a later investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. At approximately 5:30 pm local time, after a smooth takeoff from a Pacific Grove airfield and under ideal flying conditions, Denver apparently lost control of his Long-EZ aircraft several hundred feet over Monterey Bay, leading to the fatal crash.
A movie star and political activist as well as a musician, John Denver was one of the biggest stars of his generation, and is credited by the Recording Industry Association of America with selling more than 32 million albums in the United States alone.