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Pianist Chris Nole remembers the masterful John Denver on his 70th birthday

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Perhaps tough to fathom, but beloved two-time Grammy winner John Denver would be 70 years old had he lived. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious singer-songwriter possesses an impressive body of work. Fifteen Top 40 singles and nearly 40 studio and live albums have cemented his legacy as one of America's greatest artists. While he began strictly as a folk singer, Denver successfully incorporated pop, rock, country, and bluegrass into his musical arsenal.

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In an exclusive interview, Chris Nole, Denver's final pianist, goes on the record about his days spent assimilating the subtle colors and dynamics of music from a genuine master of the art form. Nole joined Denver in January 1994, replacing noted Elvis Presley sideman Glen D. Hardin's vacated piano stool.

The jazz-influenced pianist remained a valuable asset to Denver's road and studio band until the songwriter's sudden death on Oct. 12, 1997, in a freak accident over the Pacific Ocean involving an incongruously placed fuel selector valve handle in his experimental two-seat airplane.

Soundly proving early detractors wrong who took absolute pleasure in criticizing Denver's gentle odes to nature, interest in the late songwriter continues to accelerate. A new generation of artists, spearheaded by My Morning Jacket, Brandi Carlile and Dave Matthews, recently covered Denver's music on the well-received Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver.

Coming off a triumphant, albeit low key tour with Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Don Williams, Nole has been quite busy in the past year, also finding the time to revisit his association with the "Take Me Home, Country Roads" balladeer on the John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert tour. The multimedia visual experience combines members of Denver's former band with archival video footage capturing Denver's vocals and acoustic guitar.

So sit back for awhile and pull up a rocking chair as Nole, who has incidentally toured in modern times with Faith Hill, Shelby Lynne, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Emmylou Harris, reminisces about growing up in New Jersey during the mid-'70s, hearing the lilting "Annie's Song" radiate through AM radio, having a single rehearsal and then debuting in Detroit the next evening, Denver's homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, the significance of the platinum-selling Wildlife Concert, their final conversation, and much more.

The Chris Nole Interview

Do you come from a musical family?

I’ve learned over the years that some of my family was and is indeed musical. One of my mom’s cousins, Tony Costa (kinda my uncle), made a living in Las Vegas as an entertainer. Uncle Tony hung out in the Rat Pack crowd during the 60’s up through the ‘80s. Very talented pianist, vocalist and all-around good guy.

I also learned my mom was an aspiring singer as a youth, but due to her strict family upbringing, she was not allowed to pursue that very far. As for our immediate household, all of us three boys were involved with music starting at a young age. My younger brother is a former drummer now mainly playing electric bass guitar. My older brother was a percussionist in high school.

How did you first become aware of John Denver?

My earliest memories of John are of growing up in the early to mid-‘70s in New Jersey and hearing “Annie’s Song” on our AM radio. I also vividly remember having the “Back Home Again” sheet music on my piano as a young boy taking piano lessons. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually be in his band. I may still have that sheet music around somewhere [laughs].

Did you immediately become a John Denver fan, or did you venture into different musical directions?

I did both. I obviously wanted to learn John’s music as a youngster via the sheet music. The seventies was a great time for all kinds of music. I was a huge fan of The Eagles, The Allman Brothers, Billy Preston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, and many, many more.

I ventured into many musical directions at the time and still do. I spend a lot of time these days delving into blues, New Orleans piano, jazz and other styles. I feel all styles relate to each other in some way or the other.

I also have toured with and currently tour with some fabulous country acts here in Nashville. In 2013 I did over 70 live dates with the great Don Williams. I think the diversity keeps me well rounded as a musician, writer, and music producer.

Where were you when you got the word that John was interested in you joining his band?

I was home in Nashville. I got a call from John Denver’s tour manager and good friend, Kris O’Connor, who I befriended around a year beforehand. From previous conversations with “KO” I knew that there were possible changes on the horizon for John’s band and that they were interested in giving me a try at the spot.

I was contacted sometime in 1993 about possibly filling in for John’s pianist at the time, Glen D. Hardin [also a member of Elvis Presley’s famed TCB Band]. Glen was having some serious back trouble then.

The sub date did not happen, but I did get to meet John around that time at the Opry House in Nashville at one of his shows. He thanked me for being willing and available to assist with the piano sub spot if necessary.

The official call and offer came in January 1994. Kris O’Connor talked to me then about signing on for an Asian tour and other dates with John during the year. Of course I took them up on their offer [laughs].

My first gig with John was on Feb. 23 at the Fox Theater in Detroit. Alan Deremo, who tours with us on the recent John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert, was not in the band when I joined. Jerry Scheff – best known as Elvis’ bassist in the TCB Band – was still doing the bass gig. Alan came in maybe a year later.

Let’s revisit your Feb. 23, 1994, debut at the Fox Theater. John remained in Detroit for five shows. Did you undergo an extensive rehearsal?

Not really; the first time we all got together was in a meeting room at our hotel in Detroit. After a casual rehearsal, we hit the stage. All other ‘tightening up’ was done at future sound checks – 5 p.m. every show day. John was very confident with his own stage presence and abilities, and he trusted his professional musicians to cover the rest.

My memories of that day are of trying to grasp all the details being thrown at me for the show – since I had no contact or advice from Glen D. – and basically just trying to fit in. I was mainly focused on learning and playing John’s show the best that I could.

John didn’t play any practical jokes but did many nice things to make us – guitarist Pete Huttlinger joined at the same time – feel welcome. We were treated first class all the way. Anyone whoever worked with John and his organization could attest to that. The band was always top consideration. Sorry to say, not so with many other acts.

Two things stick out from our first few shows to me – first, I was knocked out by John’s entertaining and vocal abilities – he was certainly one of the best, if not the best entertainer and vocalist I’ve ever worked with. I watched and listened to him perform many nights from 10 feet away and it was amazing.

The second thing that sticks out in my mind was my touch on the piano. At the time, I was used to playing with much louder, less dynamic bands. John’s show was all finesse. I had to dramatically adjust my approach to playing the grand piano to fit in with John’s delicate arrangements and vocals.

The dynamics and subtleties of John’s music were much deeper than most any other act that I know of. Maybe the closest I’ve seen is with Don Williams. The performance on Don’s stage is all based around the vocal as John’s show was. Regardless, after a few nights in Detroit with John I believe I had it figured out.

What was an average sound check with John like?

John’s sound checks were usually around 20 to 30 minutes long. He would call just about any song at a sound check. If he liked how it sounded, it would sometimes make the show that night but usually not as far as I can remember.

We would put the set list together usually at the piano after sound check. John had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to sing night to night. Once in awhile there may have been a suggestion from the band, or most likely Kris O’Connor. John would listen to what anyone had to say.

When we would travel overseas the set lists would change more so than back in the states. John had so many special songs that he would do in others countries – songs where the lyric related to that country or people. When we were working on some of the more obscure material – we would spend more time at sound check.

Did John have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?

John usually got a massage prior to the show. He had a masseuse that accompanied him on tour. He usually ate a grilled fish dinner – or something else pretty healthy – right after the show.

Were there any particular songs that John didn’t like to perform live?

The only hit that sticks out in my mind that we rarely performed was “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I remember that we did it once in the four years I was with him. I never asked him why – but if I had to guess, it may have been because we did not have a fiddle in the band at the time.

How advanced was John on piano?

John was a very basic pianist – he accompanied himself very well on a few of his own songs. It worked well for what the song called for. He would mainly play piano on his solo shows when his regular pianist was not there. He asked me once to show him the intro to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” That was cool.

The platinum-selling Wildlife Concert is an outstanding visual document of your time with John.

Released in June 1995, it is the most prominent recording project that we worked on together. A&E and especially PBS have shown it numerous times.

The Wildlife Concert showed the world just how seasoned and still relevant John had become over the years. He had matured into an iconic American singer-songwriter and vocalist. John’s music was being appreciated once again, and the special was the beginning of a comeback for him.

John was very generous with his band on stage. Quite a few live shows that I played on were released after his death. I would recommend that you also listen to The Harbor Lights Concert [recorded on Nov. 9, 1995, in Boston] or his Christmas in Concert [Dec. 19-20, 1996, D.A.R. Constitutional Hall, Washington, D.C.] albums, respectively. These live shows give you a good sense of what we were doing.

Though not as widely known, we created a few studio projects together, including John’s reimagining of his greatest hits in Sept. 1996 and his Grammy-winning final album, All Aboard!, both recorded in Nashville. The latter is still a personal favorite of mine.

Did you have the opportunity to spend any holidays with John?

We did celebrate Thanksgiving together in 1994. The band and crew celebrated the holiday in Australia – probably in Newcastle – at a restaurant either in the hotel or nearby. We had a great time chowing down on a traditional American turkey dinner. If you have to be away from home and family on a holiday – that’s the way to do it. I never got to spend Christmas or John’s birthday with him as we never worked during the last couple of weeks of the year.

What are some of your special memories about visiting John’s home in Aspen?

One of my fondest memories is when we caught some fresh trout up at his cabin at Woods Lake. John, with a little help from Kris O’Connor, cleaned and cooked all the fish and served them. He even did the dishes afterwards. What a guy.

What do you recall about your final conversation with John?

My last words to John were most likely on the side of the stage at the Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 28, 1997, prior to the show. John was usually not real talkative before his shows, since he was mentally preparing to give all he had to give that particular evening for the performance. Usually just a quick ‘Hi’ or ‘Have a good show’ kind of thing. As far as I can remember, our last show together seemed pretty much like most any other show that we performed together.

How would you describe John’s sense of humor?

John was like most of the rest of us. We all have our up days and not so up days. When John was having a good day, he would be very jovial. He had a witty and clever sense of humor. He was very competitive with games and such. John’s laughter – when he was really having a funny moment – was especially boisterous. He’d pretty much come to tears with laughter.

Looking back over the past 20 years, how did working with John impact your life?

I would have to say the biggest effect that John has had on my life is all the wonderful people I have met through his musical legacy. I am still involved with many shows that pay tribute to the man and his timeless music, including the multi-media John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert.

John changed my outlook on music – music has so many facets. John taught me more about the subtle colors and dynamics of music. I learned from a master.

DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, first joined John Denver in October 1977 for the "I Want to Live" album sessions, ultimately forging a 20-year friendship with the late songwriter. Burton was also a valued lead guitarist for such legends as Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris, Roy Orbison and Glen Campbell. In a case of slight irony, Burton has been an integral part of the bestselling Elvis: The Concert multimedia world tour for well over a decade. To read a comprehensive interview with Burton marking the anniversary of Nelson's untimely death ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.

Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr

Further Reading: When chanteuse Bobbie Gentry burst onto the pop music landscape during the trippy Summer of Love with the mysterious "Ode to Billie Joe", usurping the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" from its number one perch, who could have imagined the massive success awaiting her? Gentry was an innovative lyricist and confident acoustic guitarist who wove rural narratives together with ease and poignancy. "Billie Joe", a brilliant Southern gothic tale sprinkled with controversial subject matter such as young love, a disapproving family, a baby born out of wedlock, and ultimate suicide, scratches the surface of her fascinating, albeit short-lived career. In "Ode to Bobbie G: The Music and Mystery of a Mississippi Delta Queen", Gentry's enduring significance and exactly why she abandoned the bright lights of fame for relative obscurity is explored in illuminating fashion. Don't miss it!

Further Reading No 2: An esteemed member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's sophomore induction class, "Garden Party" singer Rick Nelson was on the verge of a mini comeback when his plane tragically caught on fire en route to a New Year's Eve gig on December 31, 1985. A rockabilly-themed album was in the final recording stages, and Nelson had found a new record label in Nashville named Curb Records. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer's vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths revolving around the project, an in-depth feature ["True Love Ways: A Glimpse Inside the Tangled Web of Rick Nelson's Final Album"] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions nearly 30 years later.

Exclusive Interview: Dubbed the resident genius of The Monkees, a still-controversial band among some rock critics who rivaled The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for a time, Michael Nesmith knew he wanted to play music upon graduating from San Antonio College. The son of the inventor of liquid paper, Papa Nez participated in the incredible rat race of Monkee celebrity, but his heart lay in songwriting. After composing Linda Ronstadt's first hit, "Different Drum," Nesmith exited the band that made him a household name and ventured into the uncharted waters of country rock with his First National Band. The cosmically conscious musician surprised fans by spending much of 2013 on the road and agreed to spend some time with this writer on his musical back-pages, Elvis Presley, some tunes worthy of rediscovery, and the unimagined joy of touring again. Visit "Still Rollin' with the Flow: Twists and Turns with Songwriter Michael Nesmith" for the juicy enchilada.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Founding Beach Boy Al Jardine recently granted an exclusive conversation with this column. Entitled "Persistence Pays Off: In Step With Al Jardine..." ], the two-part installment delves into the musician's first solo album ("A Postcard From California"), why he originally left the band, and the difficult and demanding Murry Wilson (father of the three Wilsons). In addition, Jardine surprised fans across the world and Capitol executives by using the interview to announce the impending release of "Smile", one of pop music's legendary milestones left in the vaults for nearly half a century.

*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!

© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter or Facebook is sincerely appreciated.

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