Of his many enormous hits in the 1970s, none captured the essence of John Denver better than his first #1 song, “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” which reached the top of the pop charts on this day in 1974.
“Sunshine On My Shoulders” was John Denver’s attempt to write a sad song, which is really all one needs to know in order to understand what made Denver so appealing to so many. “I was so down I wanted to write a feeling-blue song,” he told Seventeen magazine in 1974, “[but] this is what came out.” Originally released on his 1971 album Poems, Prayers and Promises, Denver’s lovely ode to the restorative powers of sunlight only became a smash hit when re-released on his John Denver‘s Greatest Hits album in late 1973—an album that went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide.
It should come as no surprise that an artist who played such an enormous role in the softening of mainstream pop music in the 1970s would find little support from rock critics. “Television music” marked by “repellent narcissism” was Rolling Stone‘s take on Denver. “I find that sunshine makes me happy, too,” wrote Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, “[but] there’s more originality and spirit in Engelbert Humperdink.”
Such critical response did little to dampen public enthusiasm for Denver’s records during his heyday, however. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, John Denver has sold 32.5 million records—4.5 million more than Michael Bolton, and only 4.5 million fewer than Bob Dylan.