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Country Boy’s Comeback

Whoever coined the expression “The bigger they are the harder they fall” might have been thinking of John Denver.

One of the hottest multimedia stars of the ‘70s, Denver was virtually out of the public eye by the mid-'80s. He has probably received more attention in the past month because of his stated desire to go up in space for the Soviets than he has in the past five years for his career activities.

But Denver, who opens a three-night stand tonight at the Greek Theatre, has been working overtime to rebuild his career.

“Nobody stays on top forever,” Denver said by phone from his home in Aspen, Colo. “You can only stay at the pinnacle of the business for two or three years and then it’s going to taper off. The question is how you handle it when that happens.”

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Make no mistake: Denver was definitely at the pinnacle of the business. In one 18-month period in 1974-75, the singer had three No. 1 albums and four No. 1 singles. His “Greatest Hits” album sold an estimated 10 million copies and was the biggest seller in the history of RCA Records--until this year, when it was finally topped by the “Dirty Dancing” sound track.

Denver was also a sensation on TV, starring in a string of top-rated specials for ABC. He did sell-out concert business and was hot enough at one point to co-headline with Frank Sinatra. He even had a hit movie in 1977, “Oh, God!” in which he co-starred with George Burns.

But the bloom was off Denver’s career by 1978. In 1980, he snapped a string of 14 consecutive gold albums. His TV ratings started to drop. He failed to parlay his “Oh, God!” success into other film appearances. As the capping blow, last year RCA opted not to renew his record contract.

At that point, Denver could have packed it in and holed up in the Rockies. But he has been making a concerted effort to reclaim some of the popularity he enjoyed a decade ago.

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He has formed his own record company, Windstar, which recently released his first post-RCA album, “Higher Ground.” And he has started a relationship with CBS-TV, which last month broadcast his dramatic special, also titled “Higher Ground.” Coming up later this year: a new Christmas special.

It’s a far cry from the way things were in 1974, but it’s a beginning.

Denver, 44, said he realized his career was in serious trouble five years ago, when he split from longtime manager Jerry Weintraub and began managing his own affairs.

“I didn’t think I was as bad off as I was,” he said. “My relationships with my record company and with radio people around the country had deteriorated much worse than I thought, and my marketability had lessened much more than I thought. I’ve worked very hard in the last four or five years to get it back to where I’d like it to be.

“I feel good about what I’m doing. If I want to do a TV show, I think there’s support out there and interest in John Denver on TV. If I want to make a record, I have my own record company, and it doesn’t have to be a million-seller (for the economics) to work. If I want to do a tour, I can go anywhere in the world, and people are there for me to do concerts. I won’t be playing the 20,000-seat arenas, but that doesn’t matter.

“There’s still an audience out there for me. They’re not in the numbers they were, but they’re there.”

John Denver. Mac Davis. Barry Manilow. Glen Campbell. Helen Reddy.

All were once the toast of the business, selling millions of records and enjoying enormous TV visibility. But all have experienced the same steep decline that Denver has faced.

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It’s not just coincidental that all of these stars were big favorites with middle-of-the-road audiences. That audience, say music industry executives, just doesn’t seem to actively support its favorite performers over the long haul the way that rock audiences do.

“John’s audience was wide but not terribly deep,” said Joe Smith, president and chief executive officer of Capitol-EMI Music.

“In the ‘70s, there was always that sharp division between the act that could get on FM radio and be the darling of the hip set, and the acts that had hit single records. During John’s term of popularity, he could be No. 1 on the charts, but his records never touched that other audience, and it seems that other audience has a greater degree of loyalty and fascination with their favorites than his audience did.”

Bob Buziak, president of Denver’s former label, RCA, agreed.

“When these artists who appeal to a very large pop and middle-of-the-road audience hit, they sell an enormous amount of records for a period of time. But there comes a point that radio decides they are out of vogue. When the hits are there, they’re loved; when the hits stop, the audience goes away. It’s a totally hit-driven audience. Rock appeals to an aggressive audience; this seems to attract a passive audience.”

Bill Valenziano, chief executive officer of Allegience Records, which distributes Denver’s Windstar label through Capitol-EMI, says Denver overextended himself in his bid to be a multimedia superstar.

“When recording artists get to be as big as John Denver or Kenny Rogers, they become media superstars and begin to do a lot of things like TV and movies that dilute their concentration on being a record artist per se,” Valenziano said.

What does Denver think about all this speculation?

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He was initially reluctant to pinpoint the reasons for his decline, but later agreed that image problems and overexposure did hurt him.

“I got boxed in by that image,” he said. “People looked at an image that was stuck in their minds and didn’t really look at the songs and the other things that I’ve been involved in, or the way I live my life.”

The New Mexico native accepted most of the responsibility for his decline, but he was openly bitter about what he considered a lack of promotional support from RCA.

“I didn’t have support at any level from my record company on new product for the last six albums I did for them. I was totally taken for granted.”

Denver said that he wasn’t hurt when RCA decided not to renew his contract.

“Boy, I couldn’t have been happier,” he said. “They couldn’t have paid me enough to have stayed.”

Buziak, who assumed the presidency of RCA in 1986, just as Denver’s last album for the label was being released, didn’t dispute Denver’s charges. In fact, he tended to agree. Still, Buziak makes no apologies for deciding not to renew Denver’s contract.

“I had to undertake the revamping of this beast (RCA) and I needed to really start all over again. I only kept 11 artists out of nearly 40 who were on the roster when I got here--and six of those I had to keep contractually.”

Some observers have suggested that Jerry Weintraub, who managed Denver from 1968 to 1983, started to pay less attention to Denver’s career as he amassed power as a Hollywood mogul. Denver, however, refused to criticize his former manager.

“In retrospect, he may have done some things differently, but I think that Jerry always had my best interests at heart, as he perceived them,” he said.

Denver acknowledged that he has spoken to Weintraub only “a couple of times” since they parted professionally. Weintraub, who now heads his own motion picture, TV and concert production company, declined to be interviewed for this article.

The idea of an all-American “country boy” like Denver going up in space for the Soviets has drawn considerable media interest--and has launched a thousand wisecracks. But Denver, an accomplished pilot and longtime aviation buff, is serious about it.

Denver has repeatedly sought to secure a spot aboard an American space shuttle but has been passed over by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. So he was receptive when he was asked by the Soviets a year ago if he would be interested in flying with their shuttle program. He went to Moscow in April to discuss the offer, and was told that he could fly as early as 1989 if he met several requirements.

“I needed a letter saying there was no objection from my government--and I’ve gotten that from Secretary of State (George) Shultz. I needed a physical examination, I need to be able to speak and read fluent Russian, I need to free myself for a year to train, and I was told that the cost of all of this would be $10 million.

“I told them I thought it would be inappropriate for me to pay $10 million, but that if they waived the fee and the time constraints--if six months training would suffice--I’d do it.”

In the meantime, Denver is continuing to try to rekindle his career.

“I have an album that I am very proud of,” he said. “I think it’s as good as anything I’ve ever done. Whatever it was in my music that people responded to back when I was the biggest-selling record artist in the world is still there and even more so.

“It’s a real exciting place for me,” Denver added. “I feel like life is almost starting over, except that I’m much more able to live up to what’s going on than ever before. I’ve grown a lot in a lot of different ways. I’m definitely not that kid in the granny glasses anymore.”


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