In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Pop music can contain hidden depths. Some of the biggest, cheesiest songs of the early ’70s sound like luxe commercial jingles, but they’re about death, or depression, or at the very least morning sex. But that’s not the case with John Denver. Denver, who would become one of the commercially dominant artists of the mid-’70s, was always singing about exactly what you thought he was singing about. He didn’t hide subtext or commentary in his bucolic folk meditations. If he sang about how sunshine on his shoulders made him happy, what he really meant was that sunshine on his shoulders made him happy.
Denver’s first taste of fame came when he wrote “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” a 1969 #1 for Peter, Paul & Mary. Given the times, a whole lot of people heard “Leaving On A Jet Plane” as a bittersweet, tragic Vietnam song. But that’s not how Denver wrote it. He wrote it while waiting for a plane, out of a general sense of loneliness. People read more into it.
Denver’s music gives off a general sense of depth. He sings these pastoral reveries about natural beauty, or about feeling a sense of peace while he’s outside. It sounds poetic, this voice of plainspoken longing offering up these odes to clouds and trees and mountains. But there’s no real poetry to Denver’s music. It’s pure literalism, written without any sense of nuance or subtlety. “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” Denver’s first #1, is kindergarten-level writing. It should be embarrassing. Somehow, though, it’s not. It’s lovely. That’s John Denver for you.
Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. was an Air Force brat, the son of a hotshot bomber pilot who was an emotional iceberg. He grew up around the US and studied engineering at Texas Tech, but he dropped out at 20 and instead moved to LA, where he jumped into the folk scene. Peter, Paul & Mary got ahold of his 1967 demo for “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” and it made it to #1 a couple of years later. Denver had gotten himself a deal with RCA, but his records weren’t selling or getting promoted, so he took to traveling around and promoting them himself. He’d play for free on college campuses or at coffee shops. He’d show up at local radio stations and ask if they wanted to interview him. He’d sell his records hand-to-hand. Eventually, Jerry Weintraub, future producer of movies like The Karate Kid, became Denver’s manager and started pushing his 1971 album Poems, Prayers & Promises to radio. Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” blew up, peaking at #2. (It’s an 8.) All of a sudden, he was made.
Like “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Sunshine On My Shoulders” came from Poems, Prayers And Promises. By the time “Sunshine On My Shoulders” hit #1, the song was three years old, and Denver had released three more albums. But like Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle” before it, “Sunshine On My Shoulders” blew up after being featured in a 1973 made-for-TV movie about a woman dying of cancer. (This was apparently an entire genre of early-’70s made-for-TV movies.) In Denver’s case, the movie was Sunshine, and it was based on the life of a real woman who’d been a fan of Denver. That movie somehow got a spinoff TV show, and “Sunshine On My Shoulders” was in that, too. Milt Okun, Denver’s producer, had the song remixed, adding strings and woodwinds to the acoustic album version, and Denver released it as a single.
Denver had written “Sunshine On My Shoulders” during a Minnesota winter, and he wrote it about missing the sunshine. There’s longing in his delivery, and Denver later said that he’d wanted to write a “feeling-blue” song. But the song doesn’t sound sad, exactly. It sounds contemplative in a bucolic sort of way. The lyrics are almost jarringly simplistic: “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy / Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.” But what sells the song is Denver’s performance. He radiates a sensitive, uncomplicated Fred Rogers sort of decency, and he never betrays a hint of self-consciousness. This guy just wants to sing about how much he loves sunshine. It’s tough to begrudge him that.
Denver co-wrote the song with Dick Kniss and Mike Taylor, two of the members of his backing band, and they arranged the song as an intricate acoustic blanket. And while it’s kind of a cynical move to add overdubbed strings to an acoustic folk song that you’re trying to get onto the radio, the strings on the “Sunshine On My Shoulders” single version don’t sound crass. Instead, they give the song a new dimension, making it that much more tangible and cinematic.
I can understand how, in the moment, a song like “Sunshine On My Shoulders” could’ve felt oppressively optimistic. But with a few decades of hindsight, it stands as a work of good-natured thoughtless prettiness. That’s not a bad thing.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely brief appearance of “Sunshine On My Shoulders” in a 1994 Simpsons episode:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2008, after she was on Canadian Idol but long before she was famous, Carly Rae Jepsen, who will eventually appear in this column, released a cover of “Sunshine On My Shoulders” as a single. Here’s her take: