Copyright 1998 Christine Smith.
All Rights Reserved.
By Christine Smith
Photos by Alma College Scotsman 1970 Yearbook, Abe & Sammy Deutschendorf and Mary Ledford.
Nobody has ever regretted a John Denver concert, but those were John's words to Stephen Falk many years ago. Why? It had something to do with an eager college audience, a broken down car, and a blizzard ... and it's the thing responsible for many fond memories.
John was just getting started on his solo career. He was virtually unknown, so his fees were incredibly low (especially by today's standards), but his music was as good as always.
Stephen Falk, then President of the Union Board at Alma College (a small liberal arts college in the middle of Michigan), remembers booking a group in 1969 when there was a last minute cancellation. In charge of providing entertainment for the campus community, Falk says the agent contacted him saying, "I've got this guy who's a great talent and is really going to do well. His name is John Denver."
Falk, of course, had never heard of John, but the price was right. "The price we paid was $750 ... that's what he got for his first concert. He (the agent) and John Denver told me that this was the first time he had ever played a college campus (solo)."
"At first the students had not heard of him and didn't know him," says Falk, but it didn't take long before "they were just captivated by him."
"I can't tell you who the lead performers were (supposed to be), which tells you what happened. He was the backup-the fill-in group ... he simply took the whole place by storm."
With an audience of about 400 people, there was an immediate resonance between John and these young Midwestern college students. JD and Alma College were just "hand and glove" as Falk says.
"He was the person everybody talked about ... everybody remembered," recalls Falk, who immediately went to re-book John to perform again at Alma. For very shortly after that, John's popularity was increasing greatly, and by 1971 he was out of sight.
And John did return two more times much to the delight of the students. His second appearance there was before a packed gymnasium, and it was here that he said he had a new song he was doing which he wanted to introduce. Falk says John commented that he had not played this particular song on a college campus before, and that he really wanted to do this. The song: Country Roads.
"Country Roads just sticks in my mind," Falk says, "And I remember he said 'What do you think of it?' Of course, they just loved it! He also had some comedic songs ... I remember he did one where he made fun of Toledo, Ohio."
Falk also remembers that at each of the three concerts John did, he always dedicated a song to a girl named "Annie." Having married Ann Martell in June 1967, John often sang songs for her long before he wrote the beautiful "Annie's Song" we all treasure.
"He would say 'My wife's name is Annie and this one's for you.' It would always be a tender love song."
On one occasion, following a concert, Falk attended a student party which John also came to. He did what everyone hoped - he took out his guitar and sang. Alma loved John ... and the feeling was apparently mutual.
By 1971, when Falk tried to again book John, the agent said the usual fee was something like $25,000. "I was about to die, when the agent said 'No, he remembers you guys and says he'll come for like $3,000 or something. It was just unbelievable. He wanted to come back. He remembered the college ... the people."
Falk and the rest of Alma College were very happy, "I believe that he truly felt that's where he got his collegiate start. I'm not saying he did not perform before, but that that's where he really began his experience of relating to young Midwestern people. Of course he performed in many venues that were a lot larger, but I sincerely doubt he ever performed in a venue where he was more appreciated than Alma College."
Which gets us to the blizzard of January, 1971. A packed gymnasium of 800 students were waiting for John (800 may not sound like a lot ... but it was an amazing turnout ... remember there's only about a thousand students total on campus ... and it's a very small Michigan town ... thus, 800 was a tremendous crowd). They waited ... and waited ... and Falk says they were getting agitated.
"They were really getting antsy. I was on stage and had just said that we will provide you with refunds. We don't know where Mr. Denver is. We are very, very sorry."
Suddenly the side door to the gym opened and an arm came through with a snow-covered guitar, "I turned and looked and the crowd just erupted. We went from a riot to ecstasy in the swing of about ten seconds."
John came in and dusted snow off himself. He had walked about two miles through the heavy blizzard because his car had broken down en route to the college.
Falk remembers telling John that he'd "never been so glad to see anybody in my life." And John replied, "I promise you, man, you won't regret it."
"I remember that like it was yesterday," Falk says, the happiness of relating this story in his voice, "It was just a level of sincerity about that."
The audience loved him. "You had people that were just enthralled with this guy. They couldn't wait to be in his presence. He put on a dynamic performance."
"John is my fondest memory of that entire experience of booking groups. He was a cut above the typical entertainer. It was not a job to him. You have to realize that at that time, there was an incredible arrogance amongst performers. John Denver was the antithesis of that arrogance. Unlike many other entertainers, he was human, he was gentle, he was a real person."
"John had time. He had an intangible charisma. He had the ability to assure a young man, as I was, that it would be o.k." And that message meant much to young students who are trying to figure out just exactly what they want to do in life and what's it all about; he gave you the feeling "he'd make it o.k."
"He always played longer than his contractual time, going on for extended periods of time. The immediate resonance with the audience was just crystal clear ... It was just an energy level that he would provide within the gymnasium."
But it wasn't only the music itself ... it was the man behind the music. The music truly reflected the values and caring John had for all.
"John Denver gave you the impression he really cared for you. He cared for the audience ... and that he would do everything he could to provide them with a positive experience. He was quite a guy."
Those memories stayed with Stephen Falk, and influenced him greatly.
"I talked with him every time. He always had time to talk to me ... and he had no reason to talk to me. (The other entertainers had no time to talk to a young student who was booking groups). To this day, John Denver taught me that you can't generalize within any profession ... that there are good and kind people. Up until meeting him and spending time with him, my belief was that rock stars, performers, and entertainers were arrogant ... self-centered ... who cared little about anything but completing their performance and getting off stage." But John was different.
"John Denver taught me there were some performers who were good human beings ... who used the performance medium to reach out and touch an audience. That's the thing that's kept with me my entire life. I'll often talk about that with people."
And that memory will forever stay with Stephen Falk and the many others of Alma whose lives were touched by John.
The morning Falk learned of John's death in the plane crash was very sad. "I always get up before my wife, and I remember getting up and I turned the news on." After hearing the tragic news, Falk came and told his wife, "This is a really sad day, and she asked what happened. I said John Denver is dead. I remember it really hit us both hard ... he had that tenderness to his spirit that he could give to other people."
"He really did have a message. I remember how saddened I was by his death. He was a tremendous talent ... and a tremendous guy."
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