In 1976, Windstar Records – a Colorado-based record label founded by the late John Denver – released Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver, an LP album featuring all-instrumental presentations of some of Denver’s best-known songs, including Rocky Mountain High, Annie’s Song, Sunshine on My Shoulders, My Sweet Lady, and two medleys – Follow Me/Leaving on a Jet Plane and The John Denver Suite.
Conceived by Lee Holdridge, a well-regarded composer and orchestrator who, in addition to writing scores for films (Mr. Mom, Splash, Old Gringo), worked as an arranger for Neil Diamond and his long-time friend Denver. Well-versed in different musical genres and idioms, including rock, folk, classical, and film scores, Holdridge often conducted the orchestras that backed Denver in both the studio and at live concerts.
Holdridge would later go on to collaborate with the late Milt Okun, his wife Rosemary, and Holdridge’s wife Elisa Justice during the making of 2013’s Great Voices Sing John Denver, but in 1976 he worked with Denver and Windstar’s Mark Banning (executive producer and art director) to create Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver.
Taking its inspiration from one of Holdridge’s classical violin concertos, Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver is not a record with pretentions of symphonic grandeur. The arrangements in this modest – in both sound and running time – album are a reflection both of the era (the mid-1970s) and Windstar’s genre (folk).
The album – on both compact disc and digital-only formats – is short: it features a total of 12 songs, including seven songs played independently and five songs arranged as part of two medleys.
|1||Rocky Mountain High||3:14|
|3||Late Winter, Early Spring||5:25|
|4||Annie’s Other Song||3:18|
|5||My Sweet Lady||3:19|
|6||Sunshine On My Shoulders||3:09|
|7||Follow Me / Leaving On A Jet Plane||4:43|
|9||The John Denver Suite||10:04|
|9.3||The Eagle And The Hawk|
Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver was released in 1976, America’s Bicentennial year. John Denver was at the apogee of his superstardom then, comparable in stature in the music business to Frank Sinatra in the 1950s and ’60s, and he was getting ready to dip his toe into the waters of Hollywood; Carl Reiner’s Oh, God, which paired the multitalented singer/songwriter/activist with the legendary comedian George Burns, would start filming that December for an October 1977 theatrical release.
In 1976, also, the format known in the radio broadcasting business as “beautiful music/easy listening” or “BM/EZ” was still popular, and many large-market radio stations (including Miami’s WLYF 101.5 FM) played all-instrumental or choral arrangements of pop songs by different artists (including Mantovani, 101 Strings, and Ray Conniff and His Singers) until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when country music became more popular and FM stations started switching formats from “easy listening” to country.
I bring this up because rather than sounding like an album recorded by the late Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, with their distinctive symphonic sound and sensibility, Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver sounds like it was recorded with “beautiful music/easy listening” stations in mind.
Obviously, the ensemble of musicians Holdridge leads in Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver was a modest one, whereas the Boston Pops is essentially the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s pop-oriented alter ego and sounds, well, symphonic. So if you buy this album with the notion that the orchestrations will be of the same scale found in a Boston Pops recording or even Holdridge’s work for Great Voices Sing John Denver, forget it. This is more of a BM/EZ album, with a small studio orchestra and a gentle, soothing, in-the-background sensibility that less-kind reviewers might label as “elevator” or “supermarket” music.
As I wrote in How I Survived Thanksgiving 2020 & John Denver Gets the ‘Beautiful Music’ Treatment a few days ago:
(Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver is) a modest recording that isn’t as high-concept as Great Voices Sing John Denver or as essential as, say, The Essential John Denver; it only has nine tracks, and its appeal depends on how a listener feels about the “beautiful music” genre that was hot in the 1950s, ‘60s, and 1970s but became passé sometime in the late 1980s.
I actually enjoy this style of music when I’m stressed; it isn’t my favorite genre – classical music, film scores, standards, and what might be considered “oldies” (whether it’s show tunes, pop/rock songs from my younger days, or jazz/popular music from way before my time) are my top choices – but it fits the bill when I want to listen to mellow-yet-familiar music that will calm my nerves. You know, the musical equivalent of Xanax or half a glass of wine.
When I ordered my CD of Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver from Amazon last week, it was out of stock, but the giant Internet retailer assures customers that more copies are on their way to Amazon’s warehouses. I’ll get an email when my CD ships, but in the meantime I’ve listened to the complimentary digital-only version of the album on my PC.
As I wrote last week:
I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who still likes “beautiful music,” which is often referred to as “elevator music.” When I ordered the CD today on Amazon, it was out of stock (but new copies will be available soon!), but I did get – as a nice bonus from Amazon and BSK Records – the MP3 version free. (And the album is not terribly expensive…just $13.19 with sales taxes for Florida factored in.)
As I said…it’s not the best John Denver-related recording I own, but it’s not a bad one either. It’s pleasant to my ear, and as I said earlier, it soothes my nerves.