“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy,” goes one of John Denver’s most well-known songs. In a little over five minutes – and even less in its single version – “Sunshine” touches on many of the themes most important to the singer-songwriter: nature, love, beauty. Throughout the course of a career sadly cut short when he perished in a plane crash in 1997 aged just 53, Denver revisited these themes over and over again, using his pure, crystalline tone to bring comfort and spread a message of peace. With his boyish good looks, gentle voice and enthusiasm for music and nature, he was one of the preeminent pop voices of the 1970s, incorporating folk and country influences into his popular material. Legacy Recordings and Denver’s longtime label, RCA, have recently celebrated his enduring gifts of song with the release of a new box set, All of My Memories: The John Denver Collection. This 4-CD, 90-track box set revises and expands upon Denver’s last retrospective box, 1997’s The Country Roads Collection. Whereas that set was limited to the troubadour’s RCA years, this box also takes in the earliest part of his career and his post-RCA recordings for labels including Sony, Windstar and MCA.
Two-time Grammy winner Denver charted more than 40 Billboard Hot 100, AC and Country songs from 1971 to 1988, and this box set naturally features a number of them, most notably his twangy sing-along breakthrough “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (No. 2 Pop/No. 3 AC/No. 50 Country, 1971), the sweet “Sunshine on My Shoulders” (No. 1 Pop/No. 1 AC/No. 42 Country, 1974), the euphoric “Rocky Mountain High” (No. 9 Pop/No. 3 AC, 1972), the joyful “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (No. 1 Pop/No. 5 AC/No. 1 Country, 1975) and the lush, sensual ode to his then-wife, “Annie’s Song” (No. 1 Pop/No. 1 AC/No. 9 Country, 1974). Many of Denver’s own compositions are, naturally, featured alongside tracks composed by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (who co-wrote “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “I Guess He’d Rather Be In Colorado”), Buddy Holly (“Everyday”), John Prine (“Blow Up Your TV (Spanish Pipe Dream)”), Joe Henry, and others. This career overview also takes in key album tracks, live performances, and rarities including promotional-only and privately-pressed tracks. In addition, six songs make their first appearances anywhere on this set. Typical for a collection of this nature, the lesser-known material is the most fascinating.
Somewhat startlingly, Denver’s familiar, warm voice is instantly recognizable and his style almost fully-formed on Disc One’s first two tracks. Both are previously unissued demos from an October 1964 Capitol session produced by The New Christy Minstrels’ founder, Randy Sparks. “This Road,” from Sparks’ own pen, and Morgan Ames’ “Far Side of the Hill,” are lushly orchestrated with strings and background singers in the popular folk-pop style of the day, but Denver effortlessly sails above the ornamentation with a confident vibrato and earnest delivery. (The arrangements were by “Our Day Will Come” composer Mort Garson.) These qualities would serve him well down his own road – a road that Sparks helped set him on when he insisted that the young artist change his name from Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.! John took his new moniker both from his favorite state and from The New Christy Minstrels’ “Denver,” the first single from the singing group’s second album! The box also has highlights from his tenure with The Chad Mitchell Trio.
The original, previously unissued version of “Rhymes and Reasons” is included here as recorded for Reprise Records in 1968. It was later re-recorded for Denver’s RCA debut later that year with the same producer – Milton Okun, with whom Denver would forge a strong bond and association that would last for years. The Reprise version lacks the prominent piano part of the RCA version and has a different sonic character. It’s not radically dissimilar, but sheds light on Denver’s developing style. (A couple of other rare tracks come from Denver’s Reprise period – both sides of Denver, Boise and Johnson’s 1968 single featuring the rollicking political novelty “The ’68 Nixon (This Year’s Model)” and the folk-rock of “Take Me to Tomorrow.”)
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A 1977 live rendition of “Spirit” from the Sydney Opera House was excised from the 1999 release of the concert and makes its first appearance here; so does an alternate take of the Jack Williams-written “Eli’s Song,” from 1976, a song with lyrics that were clearly close to Denver (“You’re startin' out strong, you get a kick out of life/You like to sing songs, be in the spotlight/And when everybody’s watchin’ you, you shine so bright/See the airplane fly, see the trees rush by/Be brave and strong when you hurt yourself/Don’t you have a worry in the world…”). The final previously unreleased track is a 1973 rendition of William Mayhew’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” said to have been a favorite of Denver’s mother. The song was introduced in 1936 by Fats Waller and later recorded by everybody from Slim Whitman to Tony Bennett. Denver had performed the song on television and in concert, but this loose, acoustic version hails from a studio date.
Denver might be best-remembered for his universal love songs; one of the most eloquent of them is heard twice here. Denver first recorded “Babe, I Hate to Go” in 1966 for a private demo which remained unreleased until the release of 2011’s complete RCA Albums Collection box set. It found its way to Peter, Paul and Mary, and as “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” it became the first No. 1 for the folk trio as well as for its songwriter. The story-song was filled with indelible imagery, simply rendered with vulnerability and an emotional honesty anybody could recognize; Denver re-recorded it for Rhymes and Reasons, and as befits a song so important to his career, that version is included alongside the 1966 demo.
The serious themes in Denver’s music sometimes were obscured by the AM-friendly purity and beauty of his sound, but the artist’s political side isn’t glossed over on All of My Memories, either, whether subtle (“Calypso,” a tribute to explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau) or blatant (“The ’68 Nixon (This Year’s Model)”). “Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For),” from 1986, was a plea in the midst of the Reagan era to address the farm crisis and also an assertion of Denver’s longstanding pacifism.
The lighter side of the artist is reflected in many of the collaborations here, on which mutual respect is in great evidence. Emmylou Harris brings her golden harmonies to 1983’s empathetic “Wild Montana Skies” and the classic country sound is paid beautiful tribute on “And So It Goes,” featuring The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Sylvie Vartan, French ye-ye girl and onetime wife of French rocker Johnny Hallyday, appears on the 1984 single “Love Again,” with her smoky tone contrasting Denver’s on the pleasant MOR ballad. But the most fun of these duets is the medley of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” with “Happy Trails,” with Denver playing Roy Rogers to Miss Piggy’s Dale Evans. It’s no wonder why The Muppets were among the singer’s favorite co-stars! (If any duet partner is most missed, it’s Frank Sinatra, with whom Denver sold out a record-breaking Las Vegas engagement and starred in a 1976 television special on which they sang the wistful standard “September Song” together. Denver's early demos with fellow singer-songwriter John Stewart still await commercial release, too.)
All of My Memories is designed in the same compact style as Legacy’s long-running Box Set Series, but the stock of the package is of much higher quality here. Producers Teri Landi and Rob Santos, along with art director Meghan Foley, have created a beautiful set including an attractive booklet with a new essay and full credits and discographical annotation for each track. Mark Wilder has done his customarily wonderful job remastering Denver’s music to the highest standard.
Each listener will undoubtedly bring his own memories to All of My Memories, so ingrained in popular culture has much of John Denver’s music become. In the liner notes essay by Colorado Hall of Fame Director (and Denver friend) G. Brown, the singer is quoted as saying, “The worst things that have ever happened to me have been what people said about my music – ‘the Mickey Mouse of pop’ or ‘the Ronald Reagan of rock.’” But he needn’t have been concerned with such labels. Listening to these four discs of Denver’s heart-on-his-sleeve sentiments, a quote from Irving Berlin comes to mind: “There’s an element of truth in any idea that lasts long enough to be [considered] corny.” No doubt John Denver’s truthful, universal music will continue to last a long, long time.