Alan Deremo, who played bass in John Denver’s band in the 1990s, said he was preparing more than a year ago to play at the opening of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame when Denver’s estate approached him about joining a touring stage tribute to the late singer.
The show, they said, would have a live band and string section playing along to vintage videos of Denver performing his biggest hits, ballads such as “Take Me Home Country Road” and “Rocky Mountain High.”
Deremo said he was hesitant, if not outright skeptical.
“I had some fears about that idea sort of coming off a bit cheesy or maybe not really something that would appeal to me personally,” Deremo said in a recent phone call. But he said the show at the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, where Denver was the first inductee, included a couple of songs performed just that way.
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“It really came off nicely,” he said. “And I sort of understood how it actually is a viable concept that does translate to an audience. That there also is kind of a benefit to having live musicians play along with the video and it really comes off in a way that’s much more than a sum of the parts. Beyond my expectations, at least.”
That was the genesis of “John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert,” which began touring Feb. 1 and stops Tuesday at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre.
For the first time in 15 years, since Denver’s death in a 1997 private plane crash, the show presents the two-time Grammy Award winner in a concert setting. It includes songs from throughout his career, which includes 19 singles that hit the Top 10 on one of Billboard’s charts and 35 million albums sold.
Deremo said it was Denver’s children who came up with the idea for the show. They “put their heads together and tried to do something that honored the legacy of John’s music in a nice way, in a proper way, and try to incorporate some musicians and other people who worked with John in order to sort of have some legitimate ties to John’s music.”
Deremo said Brian Schwartz, who manages Denver’s estate, approached him and other members of the band who had played with Denver at different times.
The other former members of Denver’s band participating are saxophonist and woodwind player Jim Horn, who also has played with all of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elton John, U2 and Garth Brooks; keyboardist Chris Nole, who played with Faith Hill and Travis Tritt, and guitar, banjo and fiddle player Jim Salestrom, who is an Emmy Award-winning songwriter and played with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers and Steve Miller. The musicians also include Nate Barnes, drummer for the band Rose Hill Drive, and a string section.
The Denver band members played with the singer at different times in his career. Deremo played with Denver 1994-97, and the only other member he occasionally shared the stage with during those years was Horn, he said.
Deremo, who also has performed or recorded with Glenn Frey, Bo Diddley, the Mamas and the Papas, the Captain and Tenille, said he was alerted to an opening in Denver’s band by the then-percussionist Machito Sanchez, with whom Deremo had played in other bands.
“I was hired, more or less, just on a trial basis to go out and play one show and it worked, apparently,” Deremo said with a laugh. “John announced to me after the show that I was now part of the band.”
By that time, it had been more than a decade since Denver had an album that hit gold or Top 40.
“John wasn’t really making a lot of new music and his record sales had fallen off and his recording career wasn’t really thriving,” he said. But, Deremo said, the singer continued to draw large audiences for shows in Europe, Australia and Asia.
Demero said he would put Denver “right up near the top of the list of people that I’ve worked with” because Denver, in essence, “created his own genre of music.”
“His songwriting kind of was in a class just by itself,” Deremo said. “He really maintained his popularity long after he stopped having hit records because there was a timelessness and longevity to the music itself that really connects with people, and continued to over the years.”
He said Denver’s music represents America for people in other parts of the world.
That was shown when some Denver retrospective albums released while Deremo was in the band, 1994’s “The Very Best of John Denver” and 1996’s “The Rocky Mountain Collection,” sold platinum. A live album on which Deremo appeared, “The Wildlife Concert” in 1995, also went gold.
Deremo thinks Denver was one of the few artists whose voice improved with age.
“The greatest evolution that I saw was in the maturity of John’s voice,“ Deremo said. ”I really thought he was a much better singer in his later years because he had kind of a fullness and a sort of a more seasoned voice that really lent itself to the songs and had more emotional weight in some cases than the way he performed the original versions.
“You don’t see that, really, across the board because some people just don’t tend to take care of themselves over the years, and so the physical instrument can deteriorate,” he said. “But in John’s case, he really took good care of his voice and himself physically for the most part.
“So that, combined with the seasoning of having performed for so many years, just really, to me lent itself to a much more kind of emotionally complete performer. He was so on his game every single night that we played that I never really witnessed that with anybody before — who was able to just, night after night, sound flawless.”
Contributing: Lori O’Toole Buselt of The Eagle