In 1997, the single-engine fiberglass plane Grammy-winning singer John Denver was piloting off the coast of California suffered a catastrophic failure. It abruptly stalled in midair, plunged 500 feet and crashed into Monterey Bay, killing its only occupant. The “Take Me Home, Country Roads” crooner was just 53.
Despite the brevity of his life and career, John touched people’s hearts with sincere, often joyful songs that reflected the world’s beauty and the promise of true love. “He was a purely good guy, and people got that,” his former business manager and close friend, Hal Thau, exclusively tells Closer. “You can’t fake that.”
John cared deeply about nature and the state of the world — he was an environmentalist long before it became fashionable — but he was also a complicated man. “It’s not an easy thing to be sensitive, thoughtful, mindful and caring of so many things,” another good friend, Bruce Gordon, the founder of the nonprofit EcoFlight, tells Closer in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
John’s 1982 divorce from his first wife, Annie Martell — for whom he wrote the classic “Annie’s Song” — wounded him deeply. And like so many successful people, he found the demands of work often kept him away from his children, Zachary, Anna Kate and Jessie Belle. “He would talk about the kids all the time,” says Gordon. “He would always miss the kids.”
Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., the future writer of hits like “Rocky Mountain High” saw a lot of America as he moved from state to state due to his father’s career in the Air Force. “His father was a colonel and a tough, stern guy,” recalls Thau.
John’s grandmother noted the boy’s shyness and gifted him a Gibson guitar to keep him company. “Music is what opened the door for me,” once said John, who spent his teen years in Fort Worth, Texas. “I was in a chorus class, and they asked me to bring my guitar to school one day, which I did, and all of a sudden people knew me.”
But at home, the Emmy winner and his father didn’t get along. “I ran away from home when I was a senior in high school,” recalled the humanitarian, who found himself penniless shortly after he arrived in California. “Dad came out and got me, and we drove home together and talked a little bit, but I don’t know that anything was really solved.”
In college, John studied architecture, but he was drawn to the blossoming folk music scene of the early 1960s. He joined the Mitchell Trio for a time before setting out as a solo act. Along the way, he changed his surname to “Denver” for the capital of his favorite state, Colorado.
He released three solo albums and wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (which became a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary) before his 1971 breakthrough Poems, Prayers & Promises introduced the world to John’s signature songs, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” He would go on to become the most successful solo artist on RCA Records after Elvis Presley. “I don’t want to entertain people. I want to touch them,” said John, whose 1973 Greatest Hits album stayed in the Top 200 for more than three years and sold more than 10 million copies.
John married Annie in 1967. They adopted two children, Zachary and Anna Kate, and eventually put down roots in Aspen, Colo. “He liked being at home,” Gordon shares with Closer. “And he was happiest in nature — whether it was taking a walk, sitting by a waterfall or diving off one. He could dive off a 50-foot cliff and land it flawlessly.”
His closest friends believe that Annie was the love of John’s life, but it wasn’t enough to hold them together. They divorced after 15 years of marriage. “Annie was becoming a therapist, and she wanted more out of the relationship in terms of John staying home,” says Thau. It’s been said that John sawed their marital bed in half in anger after their separation, but his friends insist he and Annie never stopped loving each other. “A lot of things are blown out of proportion,” Thau reveals. “They were always good friends even after the divorce.”
While John’s private life knew many ups and downs — his second marriage, to Cassandra Delaney, mother of his daughter Jessie Belle, also ended in divorce — his commitment to making the world a better place never wavered. After his showbiz career slowed down, he began devoting more time to environmental activism. “If he had lived, he would have been one of the biggest spokespeople on climate change,” says Gordon. “A lot of people wanted him to run for office, but he felt like he could do more by influencing people without being a politician.”
John’s passing didn’t end that hope. Today, his children are working with Brian Schwartz, an estate manager, to keep his legacy alive. “I grew up on John Denver’s music,” Schwartz tells Closer, explaining that he hopes to put together a feature film about the Grammy Hall of Famer’s life, a documentary about his activism and a Broadway musical based on his songbook. “John left behind a legacy, not only of music but of his environmental and social activism,” Schwartz says. “The biggest thing we are doing is making sure that his message continues to reach new audiences.”