PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — 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.
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.
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."
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."