ohn Denver's hit career began in 1971 with "Take Me Home, Country Roads," from his album Poems, Prayers & Promises. For many, that song served as an introduction to one of the most pastoral of all American singer-songwriters. John Denver's music was described as a cross between contemporary folk, country, and pop: a joyous celebration of nature and the simple pleasures of rural living. In 1972, "Rocky Mountain High" continued that philosophy, inspiring Baskin-Robbins to invent a "natural" ice cream flavor of the same name. John also brought his folksy demeanor to television, serving as the first host of "The Midnight Special" when it premiered on NBC in August.
Clearly, by 1973, Denver was a man to be reckoned with when it came to colorful characters on the U.S. pop scene. It was natural that he would be asked to expand into motion pictures, even if it was only to help score a made-for-TV movie.
The feature was called Sunshine, and was a character study based on a real-life journal excerpted in the Los Angeles Times. It told the story of a terminal cancer case: a nonestablishment couple and the doctor who tried to save the young woman. Joseph Sargeant directed, Cliff DeYoung starred, and Cristina Raines played his wife. Also in the cast were Brenda Vaccaro, Meg Foster, Billy Mumy, and Corey Fischer. CBS drew high ratings when they aired the film on November 9, 1973.
MCA issued a Sunshine soundtrack LP, with performances by a number of cast members (in the picture, DeYoung, Mumy, and Fischer portrayed a singing trio). One of the tunes tackled was a Denver composition, "My Sweet Lady." Released as a 45 in the spring of 1974, it became a left-field Top 20 hit.
At that time, RCA was just about to issue an album called John Denver's Greatest Hits. Embarrassed by some of the early material, John insisted on re-recording several of the tracks. He was so pleased with the new version of "Sunshine on My Shoulders" that he asked that it be released as his next single. It was, in January 1974.
"Sunshine on My Shoulders" reached number one in March, becoming John Denver's first chart-topping 45. Its success can be attributed to both his moving rendition and the TV exposure his composition got. The tune was certainly an inspiring one, and not only in the context of the movie. In May 1974, New York policeman Ben Huggard swam 165 miles from the Florida Keys to the Bahamas listening to it and other John Denver music. And when seventeen-year-old Lyn Cox swam Cook's Strait in New Zealand -- the tune than ran endlessly through her mind, she said, was "Sunshine on My Shoulders."
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