Willoughby: Song, sorrow, and a unique Aspen gathering

Staff of Little Annie’s from 1974 with owners Judi and David Topol, back row 3rd and 4th to right of pole. Aspen Historical Society photo- Aspen Times Collection

I was working at the tent and walked out to the entrance area just before a concert and heard someone say, “look at that”. What we saw were a plane wing and a plane fuselage falling from the sky. We learned the next day that it was a glider and the pilot David Topol perished.

This was in the mid-1970s and gliders were a common sight in Aspen’s skies. At that time they were towed into the air from the airport using an airplane, and could soar for hours catching thermal updrafts. Around the same time, summiting Castle Peak, a glider swooshed from behind me and cruised over the peak. After recovering from the fright and shock I thought about how incredible the views from a glider circling Aspen’s peaks would be.

Topol, with his wife Judi, owned Little Annie’s that in the 70s was one of the most popular ‘locals’ establishments. Typical of an owner-operated business, the clientele came as much for the personal relationship the Topols establilshed with their customers as for the food and affordable prices. His tragic death was a shock to the community, so sudden and unexpected, there had never been a fatal airplane or glider crash in the area.

Gliding was a hobby and pilots hauled their planes to different gliding areas. They had long and narrow fuselages and extra-wide wings. To put them into storage or to trailer them somewhere, the wings were removed, so they had a simple system for decoupling them. The crash happened when the pin (or pins) that secured the wing broke and the wing fell off.

Planning for a memorial gathering faced a challenge. David was a revered local and there was not an indoor venue that could house that size of an event. The Music Associates of Aspen were approached and agreed to host the memorial. This was a first, other than the International Design Conference and a few events tied to the Aspen Institute only music festival events were scheduled.

While a somber crowd assembled for the memorial I was backstage. A still shocked Judy Topol and a couple of others were discussing the memorial program when John Denver appeared. He consoled her and asked if there was anything he could do. She responded quickly, could he sing Sunshine on My Shoulders, a favorite of David and hers.

Denver said he didn’t have his guitar with him and someone volunteered that they had one in their car. Musicians are very connected to their instrument, you may remember Denver’s song This Old Guitar and story about how he had lost it and then later got it back. A guitar appeared, one not well cared for as I remember it, and Denver began trying to tune it. He said he needed as guitar pic and one was located.

Denver’s hobby was flying. He was licensed for a number of different kinds of aircraft including gliding and owned several planes. Ironically he died in 1997 flying an experimental aircraft. He was connected to Topol through their common passion and was maybe even more shocked over the accident than Little Annie’s patrons.

It was a moving memorial, spontaneous and sorrowful, hundreds of locals turning out for one of their own. It is one of those events that if you were there you still remember the emotions, the collective grieving of Aspen.

Sunshine on My Shoulders was one of Denver’s biggest hits. The song touches people in different ways. If you know it the two first lines ‘sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy- sunshine in my eyes can make me cry’ is upbeat but sung in a somber tone. Like songs used for films where you emotionally merge the movie and the song, every time I hear the song Denver’s personal performance at that tragic event comes to mind. It brings tears to my eyes, but in a happy way.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at