HIS ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGHNESS
SHUFFLED OFF 11 YEARS AGO TODAY
For someone so unreservedly gentle, John Denver could sure pack a wallop. His power wasn't something that smacked you in the kisser but thumped your heart with sureness. He retained much of the social cause oriented fire of his '60s folk singer days but found a way to marry his messages to a seductive philosophy and hugely charming musical character. From 1971, when the hits started rolling in, onwards, Denver and his music became part of the fabric of American culture, with the straw haired, bespectacled musician starring in multiple TV shows, feature films, regular touring and PBS specials, as well as living continuously on radio.
"Thank God I'm A Country Boy," "Fly Away, " "Annie's Song," "Poems, Prayers and Promises," "Rocky Mountain High" and numerous others are songs sung by young and old, providing meaning and joy to both groups, though often for entirely different reasons – a fact that speaks to the quality and sophistication of his compositions. It was Denver that God (in the form of George Burns) chose to speak to in the '70s, and you'd have been hard pressed to find someone who argued with the Lord's decision. He brought real roots to the pop realm, and was a downright fine picker in his own right. He both loaned his songs to others (Peter, Paul and Mary are still getting checks for their version of "Leaving On A Jet Plane") and had a nose for great talent himself (his version of John Prine's "Prisoners" on Rocky Mountain High rivals or betters the original), and he used his success to aid multiple humanitarian efforts around the world throughout his life. He was 64 years old when a plane he was piloting alone went down near Pacific Grove, CA on October 12, 1997. He is missed, both for his spirit and his music, and we pause to remember him this afternoon.
Here's "Rocky Mountain High" on Top of the Pops in 1972.
Denver does a Buddy Holly medley with David "Rock On" Essex in 1973.
Pardon the hazy footage and foreign text overlay. It's worth fighting through to see Denver pick "Rocky Top" with Johnny Cash, Roger Miller and Glen Campbell (on wicked banjo), followed by Denver talking about his father's influence on his songs and "You Done Stomped On My Heart" and a bit of John Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind." Watching this it's not hard to imagine John Denver onstage with Yonder or Leftover Salmon.
Denver was a regular on The Muppet Show, and here he is doing "Poems, Prayers and Promises" around a campfire with Kermit and gang. He does, however, alter the original lyric, "While all my friends and my old lady sit and pass the pipe around." Decorum is never a bad call.
Johnny Carson interviews Denver for a few minutes before a sweet rendition of "Follow Me" from a 1974 episode of The Tonight Show, which Denver hosted a number of times during that decade as a fill-in for Carson.
Lastly, we bring you A Gift of Song – A Concert For Unicef, hosted by a hysterically earnest David Frost. The first clip is the red carpet introduction, where Denver in his zippered sweatshirt seems a little out of step with all the fur and silk high fashion on the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, etc. It's a nifty snapshot of the late '70s, and the second clip has Denver performing a few tunes.