Henry John “John Denver” Deutschendorf

Henry John “John Denver” Deutschendorf, (1943-1997)

Circa 1974

Was an American singer-songwriter, activist, and humanitarian whose greatest commercial success was as a solo singer. After traveling and living in numerous locations while growing up in his military family, Denver began his music career with folk music groups during the late 1960s. Starting in the 1970s, he was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the decade and one of its best-selling artists. By 1974, he was one of America’s best-selling performers; AllMusic has called Denver “among the most beloved entertainers of his era”.

Denver recorded and released approximately 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed. He had 33 albums and singles that were certified Gold and Platinum in the U.S by the RIAA, with estimated sales of more than 33 million units. He recorded and performed primarily with an acoustic guitar and sang about his joy in nature, disdain for city life, enthusiasm for music, and relationship trials. Denver’s music appeared on a variety of charts, including country music, the Billboard Hot 100, and adult contemporary, earning 12 gold and four platinum albums with his signature songs “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Poems, Prayers and Promises”, “Annie’s Song”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Calypso”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, and “Sunshine on My Shoulders”.

Denver appeared in several films and television specials during the 1970s and 1980s, including the 1977 hit Oh, God!, in which he starred alongside George Burns. He continued to record into the 1990s, also focusing on environmental issues as well as lending vocal support to space exploration and testifying in front of Congress to protest censorship in music. He lived in Aspen for much of his life, and he was known for his love of Colorado. In 1974, Denver was named poet laureate of the state. The Colorado state legislature also adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as one of its two state songs in 2007, and West Virginia did the same for “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in 2014.

An avid pilot, Denver died at age 53 in a single-fatality crash while piloting a recently purchased light plane.

Early Life

Lt. Col. Henry Sr, Erma, and Henry Jr.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. was born on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico, to Captain (later Lt Col) Henry John “Dutch” Deutschendorf Sr. (1920–1982), a United States Army Air Force pilot stationed at Roswell AAF, and his wife, Erma Louise (née Swope; 1922–2010). Years later, as a major in the U.S. Air Force, Deutschendorf Sr. set three-speed records in the B-58 Hustler bomber and earned a place in the Air Force Hall of Fame. He met and married his ‘Oklahoma Sweetheart’.

In his 1994 autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver described his life as the eldest son of a family shaped by a stern father who could not show his love for his children. Because Denver’s father was in the military and his family moved often, it was difficult for him to make friends and fit in with other children of his own age. Constantly being the new kid was troubling for the introverted Denver, and he grew up always feeling as though he should be somewhere else, but never knowing where that ‘right’ place was. While the family was stationed at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, Denver was a member of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus for two years. He was content in Tucson, but his father was then transferred to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama, where Denver disliked the racism of his segregated school. The family later moved to Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas, where Denver graduated from Arlington Heights High School. Fort Worth was a distressing experience for Denver, and in his third year of high school, he drove his father’s car to California to visit family friends and begin his music career. His father flew to California in a friend’s jet to retrieve him, and Denver reluctantly returned to complete his schooling.

Personal Life

John Denver; Sophomore Year, 1959

Denver’s first marriage was to Annie Martell of St. Peter, Minnesota. She was the subject of his hit “Annie’s Song”, which he composed in only ten minutes as he sat on a Colorado ski lift after the couple had an argument. They lived in Edina, Minnesota, from 1968 to 1971. After the success of “Rocky Mountain High”, inspired by a camping trip with Annie and some friends, Denver bought a residence in Aspen, Colorado. He lived in Aspen continuously until his death. The Denvers adopted a boy, Zachary John, and a girl, Anna Kate, whom Denver said was “meant to be” theirs. Denver once said, “I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by. That’s more than enough”. Zachary was the subject of “A Baby Just Like You”, a song that included the line “Merry Christmas, little Zachary” and which he wrote for Frank Sinatra. Denver and Martell divorced in 1982. In a 1983 interview shown in the documentary John Denver: Country Boy (2013), Denver said that career demands drove them apart; Martell said they were too young and immature to deal with Denver’s sudden success. Following the property settlement, Denver nearly choked Martell. He cut their marital bed in half with a chainsaw.

Denver married Australian actress Cassandra Delaney in 1988 after a two-year courtship. Settling at Denver’s home in Aspen, the couple had a daughter, Jesse Belle. Denver and Delaney separated in 1991 and divorced in 1993. Of his second marriage, Denver said that “before our short-lived marriage ended in divorce, she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other”.

In 1993, Denver pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge and was placed on probation. In August 1994, while still on probation, he was again charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence after crashing his Porsche into a tree in Aspen. Though a July 1997 trial resulted in a hung jury on the second DUI charge, prosecutors later decided to reopen the case, which was closed only after Denver’s accidental death in October 1997. In 1996, the FAA decided that Denver could no longer fly a plane, owing to medical disqualification for failure to abstain from alcohol, a condition that the FAA had imposed in October 1995 after his prior drunk-driving conviction.

Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same.

Beyond music, Denver’s artistic interests included painting, but because of his limiting schedule he pursued photography, saying once, “photography is a way to communicate a feeling”. An exhibition of over 40 never-before-seen photographs taken by Denver debuted at the Leon Gallery in Denver, Colorado in 2014.

Denver was also an avid skier and golfer, but his principal interest was in flying. His love of flying was second only to his love of music. In 1974, he bought a Learjet to fly himself to concerts. He was a collector of vintage biplanes and owned a Christen Eagle aerobatic plane, two Cessna 210 airplanes, and in 1997 an amateur-built Rutan Long-EZ.

On April 21, 1989, Denver was in a plane accident while taxiing down the runway at Holbrook Municipal Airport in his vintage 1931 biplane. Denver had stopped to refuel on a flight from Carefree, Arizona, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Reports stated wind gusts caught the plane, causing it to spin around and sustain extensive damage. Denver was unharmed by the incident.


Denver died on the afternoon of October 12, 1997, when his light homebuilt aircraft, a Rutan Long-EZ with registration number N555JD, crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California, while making a series of touch-and-go landings at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport. He was the plane’s only occupant. The official cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma resulting from the crash.

Denver was a pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience. He had pilot ratings for single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider, and instrument. He also held a type rating in his Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft, made by someone else from a kit, and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before his accident.

Denver was not legally permitted to fly at the time of the crash. In previous years, he had several arrests for drunk driving. In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the FAA learned that Denver had failed to maintain sobriety by not refraining entirely from alcohol and revoked his medical certification. The accident was not influenced by alcohol use; an autopsy found no sign of alcohol or other drugs in Denver’s body.

A post-accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) showed that the leading cause of the accident was Denver’s inability to switch fuel tanks during flight. The quantity of fuel had been depleted during the plane’s flight to Monterey and in several brief practice takeoffs and landings, Denver performed at the airport immediately before the final flight. His newly purchased amateur-built Rutan aircraft had an unusual fuel tank selector valve handle configuration. The handle had originally been intended by the plane’s designer to be between the pilot’s legs. The builder instead put it behind the pilot’s left shoulder. The fuel gauge was also placed behind the pilot’s seat and was not visible to the person at the controls. An NTSB interview with the aircraft mechanic servicing Denver’s plane revealed that he and Denver had discussed the inaccessibility of the cockpit fuel selector valve handle and its resistance to being turned.

Before the flight, Denver and the mechanic had attempted to extend the reach of the handle using a pair of Vise-Grip pliers, but this did not solve the problem, and the pilot still could not reach the handle while strapped into his seat. NTSB officials’ post-accident investigation showed that because of the fuel selector valves’ positioning, switching fuel tanks required the pilot to turn his body 90 degrees to reach the valve. This created a natural tendency to extend one’s right foot against the right rudder pedal to support oneself while turning in the seat, which caused the aircraft to yaw (nose right) and pitch up.

The mechanic said that he told Denver that the fuel sight gauges were visible only to the rear cockpit occupant. Denver had asked how much fuel was shown. He told Denver that there was “less than half in the right tank and less than a quarter in the left tank”. He then provided Denver with an inspection mirror so he could look over his shoulder at the fuel gauges. The mirror was later recovered in the wreckage. Denver said that he would use the autopilot in flight to hold the airplane level while he turned the fuel selector valve. He turned down an offer to refuel, saying that he would be flying for about an hour.

The NTSB interviewed 20 witnesses about Denver’s last flight. Six of them had seen the plane crash into the bay near Point Pinos. Four said the aircraft was originally heading west. Five said that they saw the plane in a steep bank, with four saying that the bank was to the right (north). Twelve described seeing the aircraft in a steep nose-down descent. Witnesses estimated the plane’s altitude between 350 and 500 feet (110 and 150 m) when heading toward the shoreline. Eight said they heard a “pop” or “backfire” accompanied by a reduction in the engine noise level just before the plane crashed into the sea.

In addition to Denver’s failing to refuel and his subsequent loss of control, while attempting to switch fuel tanks, the NTSB determined other key factors that led to the accident. Foremost among these was his inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft and the builder’s decision to put the fuel selector handle in a hard-to-reach place. The board issued recommendations on the requirement and enforcement of mandatory training standards for pilots operating home-built aircraft. It also emphasized the importance of mandatory ease of access to all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft.

Find A Grave Memorial


Relationship: seventh cousin once removed descending

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elder brother

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Reuben Melton


Reuben Melton


Eliza Melton


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William Lafayette Berry


Martha Matilda Berry


Erma Louise Swope


Henry John “John Denver” Deutschendorf

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