John Denver, the earnest “country boy” who soared to fame in the 1970s with sunny, folksy, just-this-side-of-corny songs such as “Rocky Mountain High,” died when an experimental plane he recently had purchased crashed into Monterey Bay during a test flight. He was 53.
Denver’s Long-EZ plane - a home-built single-engine two-seater - plunged into a marine sanctuary thick with seals and sea otters Sunday afternoon. A veteran pilot, Denver had practiced three touch-and-go landings - in which he had swooped down to the runway and then pulled back up - before receiving permission from the Monterey Airport to take the plane on a test spin down the coast.
Air traffic controllers had no indication of trouble as he took off in clear skies. In fact, Denver’s last words were a calm query about whether he had transmitted a four-digit code clearly. “Do you have it now?” he asked. Then controllers lost contact with him. Several witnesses heard a pop.
And at 5:28 p.m. Sunday, the plane dropped straight down into the ocean.
“It broke up badly upon crashing,” U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jim Miller said.
Although the Long-EZ is classified as an experimental plane, it has a solid safety record and is known as a “very strong, high-performance airplane,” said George Petterson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. The model can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $500,000 to build from the $250 blueprint, Petterson said.
Within three minutes after the plane slammed into the water, search and rescue crews had sailed to the scene. They found Denver’s body floating near some debris about 20 minutes later, although they could not confirm his identity until Monday.
Denver had been in at least two previous plane accidents, but friends said he still thrilled at flying, often zipping up and down the coast from the Monterey Airport, near his Carmel Valley home.
Around Aspen, where he maintained another home, some of his buddies knew Denver as a bit of a daredevil - inspired, perhaps, by his father, an Air Force ace pilot who broke several speed records.
Joe Frazier, who played with Denver in the Chad Miller Trio folk group in the 1960s, remembers scary moments in a biplane that seemed at times to scrape the mountain peaks and nuzzle the valley floors around Aspen. And Denver’s former manager, Tim Mooney, recalls a favorite antic: the singer would cut the engine 35 miles from the landing strip and then glide in.
“He flew anything with wings and an engine on it,” Mooney said, “from stunt planes to jets to Piper Cubs in the Alaskan bush.”
Denver’s zeal for flying in many ways mirrored the boyish enthusiasm he brought to singing.
Critics might have carped that his songs were as bland as Wonder Bread or as cloying as toffee, but Denver’s fans loved him for just those qualities: they could count on him to look happy, sound happy and make them happy.
“He struck a chord in the people and they believed in him,” said Jerry Weintraub, who managed Denver during his superstar years. “They liked him a lot.”
Although Denver revealed a darker side over the years - going through two bitter divorces, confessing to drug use and infidelity, and being arrested twice for drunken driving - during his peak he was seen as a wholesome good guy.
Even as he gained worldwide acclaim, Denver never tried to be hip, or sophisticated, or especially deep. Instead, he continued to compose upbeat songs about the glory of the great outdoors and the down-home joy of being a regular guy, in hits like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Several of the fans who buoyed Denver through the past two decades made sad, quiet pilgrimages to this upscale coastal community Monday. There were no markers, no candles, no piles of flowers. Just mourners strolling along the cliff between Lover’s Point and Point Pinos, where Denver’s plane went down about 300 yards off the coast.
John Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., on New Year’s Eve, 1943, in Roswell, N.M.. As a kid, he bounced from state to state with his Air Force father - who apparently didn’t think much of show biz. “I always thought my dad wanted me to be a football player or a mechanic instead of a musician,” Denver explained.
Denver himself was not immediately hooked on music. When his grandmother gave him his first guitar, a 1910 Gibson, he fiddled with it for a while but soon found practicing a bore. His interest revived only when Elvis Presley burst on the scene.
Then, he was hooked.
He dropped out of Texas Tech University, where he had planned to study architecture, and headed to Los Angeles with just three guitars and $125 to his name. There he met a Capitol Records producer who suggested that Deutschendorf just wouldn’t cut it as a surname. “I guess he thought (it) wouldn’t fit on a record label,” joked Denver, who picked his stage name because it evoked clean air and mountains.
Denver got his break in 1965, when he won a spot with the Chad Mitchell Trio, to his great surprise.
The wearying travel schedule inspired Denver to write “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and became a No. 1 hit in 1969. His career took off from there.
With his shaggy blond-streaked hair and his gold-rimmed “granny glasses,” Denver became an instant star. He cranked out hit after hit, including “Annie’s Song,” (for his first wife, Ann Martell), “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and “Back Home Again.”
Eight of his albums sold more than a million copies. He won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award in 1975. And he hosted six Grammy shows - including one in which he sang with Kermit the Frog.
A true multimedia hit, Denver appeared on a slew of TV specials and in the 1977 film “Oh God!” with George Burns. When he appeared at a Lake Tahoe nightclub with Frank Sinatra, so many fans flooded the switchboard that telephone circuits in the area went dead. He received letters from fans who said his songs banished depression or cured diseases or helped them through natural childbirth.
Friends said Denver was hurt when his popularity began to fade in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“His music went out of style and he was terribly frustrated by that,” Frazier said. “It was very disturbing to him. I don’t think he ever got over not being up there.”
Still, Denver pressed on. He threw himself into his causes, founding an environmental education center and donating song royalties to UNICEF. He served on a presidential commission on hunger. He toured the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam long before they became chic.
One of Denver’s proudest accomplishments in recent years, was founding Plant It 2000, a group that aims to plant a million indigenous trees around the world by the turn of the millennium. So far, they’ve planted 500,000.
Denver is survived by two daughters, a son, his mother and a brother.
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