John Denver may have been the most gentle singer in pop music, but he populated his backup bands with experienced rock and rollers. One was saxophonist Jim Horn, who'd played with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and The Who, but traded his honking attitude to approximate seagulls and the ocean on "Calypso" and "Fly Away" with Denver onstage from 1979 to 1995. He reprises that role on a tribute tour starring the late singer-songwriter in larger-than-life video, on old favorites from "Rocky Mountain High" to "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
"We've never done this before," he says by phone from his Nashville home, days before rehearsals. "We're hoping it's all going to work." The tour opens Friday at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury.
Tell me about the first time you played with John Denver.
I went to New York and played Madison Square Garden. The house was full. He said, "If I'm singing like the birds or the ocean or the wind, if you can emulate anything like that, that'd be great." ... So I would do all these trills and flutters and arpeggios. He would turn around and give me a thumbs-up and wink at me.
You're a rock and roll guy; did that make for culture clash with John?
No, because he had the Elvis Presley band backing him up when I first joined him -- James Burton on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass. He conjured up an idea to do these shows and called it Johnny and the Sharks. He even had jackets made. We'd get up there and play "Johnny B. Goode," maybe three or four songs. I'd get out my baritone sax. He loved Elvis, he loved The Beatles, but he couldn't be them, so he did it onstage.
Long before John Denver, you went on the road with rockabilly star Duane Eddy as a teenager. How supportive were your parents of that plan?
They had the principal and two of my teachers in the living room the night that I said, "I'm going to New York with Duane." They said, "We'd rather you wait and finish high school," because I had a month and a half to go. I just said, "I have to do this." It was the right call. My dad was behind me. My mom was a little reluctant.
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. Friday, NYCB Theatre at Westbury
INFO $39.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com