And he lost a friend but he kept a memory.
-- John Denver, "Rocky Mountain High"
Audiences loved John Denver because he loved them. He wanted to touch us, and he did -- sometimes with a caress like "Annie's Song," sometimes with a slap like Tom Paxton's anti-war "Wake Up Jimmy Newman." When he wanted us to laugh, he could make 20,000 people in a concert hall laugh out loud when he sang about "Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio." And, of course, he reminded us how much we need to find our way home.
Before that, Denver was a regular at the Cellar Door. I met him at the Georgetown club in 1966, when he replaced Chad Mitchell in the Mitchell Trio, then one of my favorite acts. Fans were skeptical at first, but we were soon won over by John's guitar playing and charm. The Cellar Door, which regularly featured the era's finest acts, was a place of camaraderie. After hours, performers often hung out with the the club's young staff long into the night drinking and telling stories. Lifelong friendships were formed there. I was staff, first a doorman, then a lights-and-sound man and manager. That's how I became one of John's many new friends in Washington. By 1969, the Mitchell Trio was history, John was a solo folk singer, and I had graduated from Georgetown University and was singing with Taffy Nivert under the name Fat City.
An old Cellar Door friend brought John in to hear us, and John fell in love with one of our songs, "I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado." After hours he made us sing it to him again, one of us in each ear so he could hear it in stereo. He especially loved the song because he was living in Edina, Minn., at the time and longed to build a dream house he had designed in Aspen. John learned our song and taught it to Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. She recorded it, and later on he recorded it himself.
Sam L'Hommedieu, co-owner of the Cellar Door, thought it would be a good idea to book John as a headliner there with Fat City as the opening act. It was. Our week was pretty much sold out. One evening after the shows, John came back to our basement apartment to swap songs and party. That night, he helped us finish writing a song that changed all of our lives. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was inspired by a drive to a family reunion in Gaithersburg along Clopper Road -- which back then was still a country road. When we first sang the song together the following night, it seemed as though the audience would never stop applauding. Next show same thing. We knew we had a hit.
We recorded in New York the following Monday, and "Country Roads" became John's first record to hit the charts. He started to arrange his bookings so that Fat City could be his opening act -- we would join him at the end of his set to perform the songs we had recorded together. We played New York and Los Angeles and so many small college towns in between. We had a joke at the time -- "that town's so small John Denver's never played there."
"Rocky Mountain High" and many more hits followed, and the venues became larger. In 1976, Taffy and I had the hit "Afternoon Delight" with Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman as the Starland Vocal Band, and we were again opening for John, at venues that included Madison Square Garden. At all the venues, John would introduce himself to everyone from the promoters to the monitor mixers to the stage crew.
I saw John just three weeks ago in Baltimore, performing a cystic fibrosis benefit. I hadn't seen his show in years, and as I watched it I was reminded how many beautiful songs he had written. My favorites are "For Bobbie," "Back Home Again" and "Calypso." Later at the hotel, I told him that and he thanked me. We reminisced with other old friends over drinks, talked about what we were doing these days and had a wonderful visit. Driving home, I thought how nice it was to see an old friend. CAPTION: An early end to a singer's poems, prayers and promises: John Denver was 53 when he died. CAPTION: John Denver's charm won over both audiences and his fellow musicians.