The Life of the Folk Legend Who Wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane”

In 1966, John Denver was relatively unknown within the Los Angeles folk scene when he wrote and recorded a song called “Babe, I Hate to Go” and gave the recordings out to friends as Christmas presents.

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The track would later become one of his most famous songs: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

Grandma’s Guitar

Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on New Year’s Eve, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico, Denver grew up in a military family, constantly moving around and barely making friends as he was growing up. When the family was stationed in Arizona for several years, Denver joined a boys choir and began singing.

When Denver was 11, his grandmother gifted him an acoustic guitar, a 1910 archtop she had played when she was little. Teaching himself to play, Denver was later upgraded to a 12-string Gibson B-45-12N.

Randy Sparks

By the time he was in college, Denver was performing at local venues under the name Randy Sparks and joined the folk group The Alpine Trio before landing with The Chad Mitchell Trio in the mid-1960s. When he was 20, he switched his stage name one more time, using his first name John with the surname Denver, after his favorite city. (Denver would later live in Aspen, Colorado for most of his life.)

The trio later changed their name to Denver, Boise, and Johnson, to represent the surname of each band member. Releasing a few albums with the group, including Alive! in 1967, Denver broke off to embark on a solo career.

On the Road… Again

Longtime producer Milton Okun later convinced Denver to change the title of that early song he wrote to “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” By 1969, Peter, Paul and Mary had a No. 1 hit with Denver’s song and he recorded and released it himself that same year on his first major album, Rhymes & Reasons. Surprisingly Denver’s version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” didn’t chart.

Singing about being away from the one you love, Denver is assuring his girlfriend, in the song, that he is committed to her before leaving, on a jet plane, for a worldwide tour.

All my bags are packed
I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’
It’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’
He’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome
I could die

“This is a very personal and very special song for me,” said Denver in a BBC radio interview. “It doesn’t conjure up Boeing 707s or 747s for me as much as it does the simple scenes of leaving. Bags packed and standing by the front door, taxi pulling up in the early morning hours, the sound of a door closing behind you, and the thought of leaving someone that you care for very much.”

He added, “It still strikes a lonely and anguished chord in me, because the separation still continues, although not so long and not so often nowadays.”

In 1972, Denver performed a duet of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” with The Mamas & The Papas Mama Cass on the NBC show The Midnight Special and recorded the song one more time in 1973 for John Denver’s Greatest Hits.

Solo and Screen Time

By the 1970s, Denver was hitting the country, folk, pop, and multiple charts, and also began acting, starring in the 1977 comedy Oh, God! alongside George Burns, the 1986 Disney film The Leftovers, also starring the late Cindy Williams of Laverne & Shirley, Ghostbusters II, and his final movie Walking Thunder in 1994, among several other roles in film and on television.

In a career spanning 27 albums, including his final release, All Aboard! in 1997, Denver sold more than 33 million records and had seven albums reach the top 10 in the U.S. and left behind a collection of hits, including “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” “Calypso,” “Annie’s Song,” and “Back Home Again.”


An environmentalist and humanitarian, throughout the early 1970s, Denver was one of the first artists to address concerns for the environment through music and supported numerous charitable organizations. In his lifetime, Denver received the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Achievement Award, the Presidential “World Without Hunger” Award for his work with The Hunger Project and UNICEF, and NASA Medal for Public Service, among many other honors.   

“Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions,” said Denver. “People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics, or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves we are the same.”

John Denver (1943-1997)

An avid flyer, Denver died on October 12, 1997, at the age of 53 when his Rutan Long-EZ aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California. He left behind his children, Anna Kate, Zak, and Jesse Belle, along with his brother Ron and mother Erma, who died in 2010 at 87.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Denver’s iconic album, Rocky Mountain High, in 2022, also 25 years after Denver’s death, Colorado Governor Jared Polis named the Mountain Lion Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park the Rocky Mountain High Trail.

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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