The Bootleg Files: John Denver and the Ladies

BOOTLEG FILES 842: “John Denver and the Ladies” (1979 television special featuring Tina Turner, Valerie Harper, Cheryl Ladd, Erma Bombeck and Cheryl Tiegs).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived reissue value.

Not likely.

During the 1970s, John Denver was a ubiquitous presence on television, both as a guest on variety programs, awards productions and talk shows, and as the star of an occasional TV special. By the end of the decade, Denver tried to push himself away from his folk-country-pop persona into different areas. He scored a box office hit in his first movie, working with George Burns in the 1977 “Oh, God!”, but he opted not to vigorously pursue acting and would not appear in another film for nine years. He became an increasingly vocal activist focused on conservation and humanitarian issues. And while he didn’t lose his core audience, his new music in the late 1970s (which was more complex and mature than his earlier sing-along hits) did not generate the sales as his output from the earlier part of his decade.

Denver’s eagerness to realign his persona was on display in his 1979 TV special “John Denver and the Ladies.” In the course of this offering, he tried to show his skills as a Broadway-level song-and-dance man, as a comic, as a rocker who can keep up with Tina Turner, and even as a fashion plate. Even the off-camera announcer tries to cue the audience that this was a different Denver, claiming they would see a John Denver “from sea level indoors…miles away from any kind of nature.”

None of it really clicks, but it is not for Denver’s lack of trying.

One of the obstacles in Denver’s way was the budget for this production, especially the cheapjack opening number which looks like an overly ambitious community theater version of a Broadway spectacular. Denver, clad in a white tuxedo, was not the most accomplished dancer – a fact that was magnified by having him in the midst of chorus girls who seemed to be one step ahead of him. He is joined in the number by Valerie Harper, who began her career as a Broadway chorus girl before plumbing sitcom stardom – she was more than capable as a dancer, even if she was stuck doing a disco version of “Show Me a Man Who’s Got a Good Woman.”

There is more disco on the soundtrack in the next segment as Denver tried to keep up with supermodel Cheryl Tiegs in her fitness regimen – the duo is seen jogging around Los Angeles while a disco version of “Ease on Down the Road” plays on the soundtrack. Denver attempted to play this segment for laughs, barely keeping from collapse while Tiegs roars through her workouts and wondering aloud at the bare minimum meals she consumes. Denver made a goofy foray into Tiegs’ territory in a modeling segment, but the clothing he was given was mostly unappealingly conservative. Tiegs came across as appealing, but Denver wasn’t and the segment falls flat.

Things remain enervated in the next segment, with the program’s “special guest star” Cheryl Ladd. Around this time, ABC was trying to push Ladd as a singer – she gave it a good try, but music was not her forte. The special gives her a solo number and a duet with Denver, but she’s not his equal as a singer.

At this point, Denver must have tired of the ladies because he gave himself a solo number. After that, the next lady was humor columnist Erma Bombeck, who was inexplicably popular in the 1970s for her writing about the absurd aspects of suburban life. Bombeck (at least in my opinion) was not the funniest writer and she certainly wasn’t funny as an on-camera presence, despite the shrill insistence of the program’s laugh track. The show’s low point has Denver and Bombeck in a dance with the singer warbling “I Love You Just the Way You Are.”

After an “Oh, God!” parody with Denver repeating his role and Valerie Harper in the George Burns part of God, the special takes a funky turn when Tina Turner appears in male drag to perform “Hey, Big Spender.” Turner and Denver then perform “Downhill Stuff” – Turner is dynamite, of course, but Denver’s voice is ill-suited for this music. Denver ends the show with another solo number – it seemed none of the ladies were worthy to close the show with him.

“John Denver and the Ladies” had DuPont as a sponsor – an odd choice, considering Denver’s ecological focus. It was broadcast on ABC on March 8, 1979, to no great acclaim and was mostly forgotten. The full special (minus commercials) is available in an unauthorized YouTube posting; a commercial home entertainment release never happened and (in view of music and performance clearance costs plus the not-remarkable nature of the show) probably never will.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.