John Denver: Leaving on a Jet Plane

John Denver’s pre-superstar years as a pop folkie

Six years before John Denver catapulted to fame with 1971’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” he was a hard working folkie on the Los Angeles club scene. In 1965, when Chad Mitchell left his eponymous folk trio for a solo career, Denver survived the audition process to assume the group’s leadership. The new lineup issued a pair of studio albums and a live set on Mercury, and when the last original member, Mike Kobluk, left the group, Denver carried on with recent addition David Boise and the newly added Michael Johnson, as Denver, Boise & Johnson. The latter trio released only one single, Denver’s “Take Me to Tomorrow,” but recorded additional material, of which three previously unreleased selections are included here.

The Mitchell Trio’s legacy of humor is heard in the 1967 single “Like to Deal with Ladies as Sung in the Shower Accompanied by a Twenty-Seven Piece Band,” as well as a live performance of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” The latter, stretching to nearly eight minutes, finds Denver intertwining smart-aleck stage patter with an audience sing-along and the trio’s superb harmonizing. Denver’s early years found him writing several of his most beloved songs, including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” originally self-released in solo form as “Babe, I Hate To Go (Leaving On A Jet Plane).” The retitled song is offered here in both a poorly conceived, band-backed studio single, as well as a beautifully sung acoustic live performance from 1967.

Denver, Boise & Johnson’s single “Take Me to Tomorrow” is a terrific up-tempo original, while it’s B-side, “‘68 Nixon (This Year’s Model),” sung in barbershop harmony, carries on the satirical social criticism of the Mitchell Trio. The set includes three previously unreleased tracks from Denver, Boise and Johnson, including superb vocal arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Tom Paxton’s “Victoria Dines Alone,” and a 1968 take on Denver’s “Yellow Cat” that’s more sedate than the version recorded for Rhymes & Reasons. The disc closes with the unison singing and banjo of “If You Had Me in Shackles,” capping a set that highlights the folk roots that preceded Denver’s transformation into a “far out!” ‘70s superstar. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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