Sunday, November 08, 2015

John Denver's Triple

John Denver was one of my early favorites.

Not long after I got my first stereo, I was listening to Denver's music on a regular basis (along with Three Dog Night and Cat Stevens). At one time in my life I had most of his albums, but I wasn't exactly blazing a trail there. I mean, a lot of people liked John Denver in those days. He was quite popular. You didn't really have to have his records in your possession to listen to him, either. You could hear his latest hits on mainstream radio pretty frequently.

But if you wanted to hear his latest songs that were not being played on the radio, you pretty much needed to have his latest album.

I would venture to say that most people didn't think of John Denver as a country musician. He was primarily regarded as a pop star, but he sang about country topics — simple pleasures, the rural lifestyle and small–town values — but his music never really met the definition of country music that had been established by David Allen Coe as a spoken interlude in his 1975 recording, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" — at least not in my opinion.
"Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song
And he told me it was the perfect country and western song.
I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the
Perfect country and western song because he hadn't said
Anything at all about mama or trains or trucks or prison or gettin' drunk."

No, that wasn't John Denver's style.

He had a lot of crossover appeal, though. It seemed there were a lot of artists who were like that in the '70s — or maybe it just seems that way in hindsight. Most of today's music seems to be designed to appeal to a narrow niche.

Of course, there are acts that try to blend styles and create something new, but that isn't really the same thing. Most such acts seem to be little more than cynical attempts to cash in on more than one market simultaneously.

What I'm talking about is a genuine connection to people and how they relate to others, to places, to themselves. Earlier in 1975, Denver had a big hit with a song titled, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," which spoke to the human condition more than it did to musical genres. That was the essence of Denver's music. It was a uniter, not a divider, to borrow a famous phrase.

There aren't many performers these days who try to push the envelope and make music that attracts a diverse audience, but it wasn't too uncommon 40 years ago. It seems as if I was always surprised to learn that a pop star I liked was getting a lot of airplay on country stations.

John Denver was one of those musicians, and the best evidence of that may be that on this day in 1975, his single "I'm Sorry," which had been released in July, reached the top spot on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart. In September, the song reached the top position in Billboard's Hot 100, just as "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" had.

I suppose the greatest difference between the two is the fact that "I'm Sorry" turned out to be the final #1 pop hit of Denver's career.

In the mid–'70s, Denver probably was at his peak in popularity with a string of #1 songs and #1 albums, crossing over into multiple categories. "I'm Sorry," for example, not only occupied the top spot in Billboard's Hot 100 before claiming the same spot on the Hot Country Singles chart, but it was also #1 for awhile on Billboard's Easy Listening chart (now Adult Contemporary).

"I'm Sorry" was Denver's last #1 hit on the Hot Country Singles chart — the last of three, all in the mid–1970s. He had been topping other charts in the earlier years, but he had only reached #1 with the country audience for the first time about a year earlier with "Back Home Again," a song with a country flavor but still very much the folk music for which Denver was known originally.

In fact the B side of "I'm Sorry" is a good example of Denver's versatility. One would never mistake it for a country song.

Until just a few years ago, I thought the B side — "Calypso" — was an A side. It was a tribute to French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his vessel, the Calypso, and it was featured in a television documentary about Cousteau's work. I was certain I had heard it played on the radio more often than I had heard "I'm Sorry." And, as I say, I was a John Denver fan in those days.

Truth is, "Calypso" apparently did receive more airplay than "I'm Sorry" did, and RCA reversed the order on the single, making "Calypso" the A side and "I'm Sorry" the B side.

"Calypso" may have had more airplay, but it never made it to #1 on any chart.