In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains he celebrated in song, an overflow crowd of family, friends and fans gathered in Aurora, Colorado Friday to celebrate and mourn singer John Denver, the gentle, nature-loving troubadour hailed as "the folk poet of our time."

The public memorial service, at the 2,000-seat, Presbyterian church where Denver's mother has attended since the early 1970s, resonated early with the sound of the entertainer's crystalline tenor. Songs by the quintessential country-pop crooner of the 1970s ("On the Wings of a Dream," "High Flight," "The Wings that Fly Us Home," included) played for mourners as they waited to file into the church:

None of the tunes were Denver's signature hits. Instead, they bravely, and eerily, spoke to his love of flying. It was a recurrent theme in Denver's life and art, and the reason for his death, Sunday at age 53, in an experimental plane crash in the waters of California's Monterey Bay.

Over and over again, Denver was praised Friday as a "good man," devoted to the Earth and the environment.

"His music sprang from his feelings of love and the world we live in," family friend Hal Thau told the gathering. "Most importantly, his songs resonated with the people."

Denver's brother played a recent phone message from his famed sibling--a snippet highlighted by a joyful giggle from the often-sunny performer.

Others in attendance Friday were Denver's three children, his mother and two ex-wives, including Annie Martell, the woman who inspired the 1974 valentine, "Annie's Song."

Audio Clip: John Denver, "Annie's Song"
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Wednesday night, in an interview on CBS' Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel, Martell, whose marriage to Denver ended in 1982, called her ex-husband "fearless"--a man who wasn't afraid to die. She said that while "Annie's Song" still moved her to tears, "Perhaps Love" was actually her "favorite John Denver" song. That million-seller from 1981, a duet with opera singer Placido Domingo, was also played at Friday's ceremony.

A second memorial service is planned for Saturday in Aspen, the posh resort town Denver fell in love with in 1967 and chose to call home.

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