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Singer John Denver Killed in Plane Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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 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 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.

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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, Colo., 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 pilot who broke several speed records.

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Joe Frazier, who played with Denver in the Chad Mitchell 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 drunk 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 such as “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

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Describing himself in a 1976 interview with Newsweek, Denver said: “I’m a king of Everyman. I epitomize America.”

Or at least, white, mainstream America.

By catering to that audience, Denver racked up 14 gold albums in the 1970s. In one incredible run, he released three No. 1 albums and four No. 1 singles in just 18 months. His “Greatest Hits” album, which sold more than 10 million copies, ranks as one of RCA Records’ best-selling releases of all times.

Though his career sagged in the 1980s, he continued to draw loyal crowds on his tours--the latest as recent as last week.

In addition, he recently released two albums: a family sing-along called “All Aboard” and “The Best of John Denver Live.”

“He honestly felt he was singing better than he ever had in his life,” Denver’s publicist, Paul Shefrin, said. “He was having a good time out there.”

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 Pt. Pinos, where Denver’s plane went down about 300 yards off the coast.

“I’ve loved the message of his music,” 61-year-old Joan Barwin said, fighting back tears as she looked over the cobalt ocean. “It was about Denver [Colo.], and our mountains, and the freedom that you feel living there.”

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 business. “I always thought my dad wanted me to be a football player or a mechanic instead of a musician,” Denver said.

Denver 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 Assn.'s Entertainer of the Year Award in 1975. And he hosted six Grammy shows--including one in which he crooned a duet 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, 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.

A longtime astronomy enthusiast, Denver also campaigned to hitch a ride on a NASA shuttle--or even on a Soviet spacecraft. He dieted and exercised to get in shape for such a mission and “worked his connections” to the max, Mooney said, but he never got the call to become an astronaut.

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, it has planted 500,000.

Denver’s environmental passion seems destined to outlive him in other ways as well. Harold Thau, who served as Denver’s business manager for nearly 30 years, said the singer recently finished a new song called “Yellowstone” that was to be featured in an outdoorsy documentary.

“That song would have been part of it,” he said. “Still might.”

Denver is survived by two daughters, a son, his mother and a brother.

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Times staff writers Robert Hilburn and Stephanie Simon contributed to this report.

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* REMEMBER DENVER: John Denver leaves a legacy of hit songs and personal commitment, Robert Hilburn writes. F1


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