Rodney Marvin "Rod" McKuen (April 29, 1933 – January 29, 2015) was an American singer-songwriter, musician and poet. He was one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s. Throughout his career, McKuen produced a wide range of recordings, which included popular music, spoken word poetry, film soundtracks and classical music. He earned two Academy Award nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music compositions. McKuen's translations and adaptations of the songs of Jacques Brel were instrumental in bringing the Belgian songwriter to prominence in the English-speaking world. His poetry deals with themes of love, the natural world and spirituality. McKuen's songs sold over 100 million recordings worldwide, and 60 million books of his poetry were sold as well, according to the Associated Press.
McKuen was born on April 29, 1933, in Oakland, California. Raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic, McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11. He drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disk jockey, always sending money home to his mother.
To compensate for his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal, which resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. In the 1950s, McKuen worked as a newspaper columnist and propaganda script writer during the Korean War. He settled in San Francisco, where he read his poetry in clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began performing as a folk singer at the famed Purple Onion. Over time, he began incorporating his own songs into his act. He was signed to Decca Records and released several pop albums in the late 1950s. McKuen also appeared as an actor in Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), Summer Love (1958), and the western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton's band. In 1959, McKuen moved to New York City to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop.
Discovering Jacques Brel
In the early 1960s, McKuen moved to France, where he first met the Belgian singer-songwriter and chanson singer Jacques Brel. McKuen began to translate the work of this composer into English, which led to the song "If You Go Away" – an international pop-standard – based on Brel's "Ne me quitte pas." In the early 1970s, singer Terry Jacks turned McKuen's "Seasons in the Sun," based on Brel's "Le Moribond," into a best-selling pop hit. McKuen also translated songs by other French songwriters, including Gilbert Bécaud, Pierre Delanoé, Michel Sardou, and others.
In 1978, after hearing of Brel's death, McKuen was quoted as saying, "As friends and as musical collaborators we had traveled, toured and written – together and apart – the events of our lives as if they were songs, and I guess they were. When news of Jacques' death came I stayed locked in my bedroom and drank for a week. That kind of self-pity was something he wouldn't have approved of, but all I could do was replay our songs (our children) and ruminate over our unfinished life together."
In the late 1960s, McKuen began to publish books of poetry, earning a substantial following among young people with collections like Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). His Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. McKuen's poems were translated into eleven languages and his books sold over 1 million copies in 1968 alone. McKuen said that his most romantic poetry was influenced by American poet Walter Benton's two books of poems. McKuen sold over 60 million books worldwide, according to the Associated Press.
McKuen wrote over 1,500 songs, which have accounted for the sale of over 100 million records worldwide according to the Associated Press. His songs have been performed by such diverse artists as Robert Goulet, Glenn Yarbrough, Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Petula Clark, Waylon Jennings, The Boston Pops, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Pete Fountain, Andy Williams, the Kingston Trio, Percy Faith, the London Philharmonic, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Mathis, Al Hirt, Greta Keller, and Frank Sinatra.
In 1959, McKuen released a novelty single with Bob McFadden, under the pseudonym Dor on the Brunswick label, called "The Mummy." The McKuen-written song reached No. 39 on the Billboard pop chart. In 1961, he had a hit single titled "Oliver Twist." He co-wrote it along with Gladys Shelley and the Spiral label-issued single reached No. 76 on the Billboard pop chart. His hoarse and throaty singing voice on these and other recordings was a result of McKuen straining his vocal chords in 1961, due to too many promotional appearances.
He collaborated with numerous composers, including Henry Mancini, John Williams, and Anita Kerr. His symphonies, concertos, and other orchestral works have been performed by orchestras around the globe. His work as a composer in the film industry garnered him two Academy Award nominations for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), and his other film scores have included Joanna (1968), Me, Natalie (1969), Scandalous John (1971), The Borrowers (1973) and Emily (1976).
In 1967, McKuen began collaborating with arranger Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings for a series of vocal pop albums, including The Sea (1967), The Earth (1967), The Sky (1968), Home to the Sea (1969), For Lovers (1969), and The Soft Sea (1970). In 1969, Frank Sinatra commissioned an entire album of poems and songs by McKuen; arranged by Don Costa, it was released under the title A Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen. The album featured the song "Love's Been Good to Me," which became one of McKuen's best-known songs.
McKuen performed solo in a half-hour special broadcast by NBC on May 10, 1969. The program, billed as McKuen's "first television special," featured the songs "The Loner," "The World I Used to Know," "The Complete Madame Butterfly," "I've Been to Town," "Kaleidoscope," "Stanyan Street," "Lonesome Cities," "Listen to the Warm," "Trashy," and "Merci Beaucoup." It was produced by Lee Mendelson, producer of the Peanuts specials, and directed by Marty Pasetta. James Trittipo designed a set that was "evocative of waterfront pilings" and Arthur Greenslade conducted the orchestra. In 1971, he hosted a series, The Rod McKuen Show, on BBC television in the UK.
McKuen's composition "Jean," sung by Oliver, reached No.1 in 1969 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and stayed there for four weeks. In 1971, his song "I Think of You" was a major hit for Perry Como. Other popular McKuen compositions included "The World I Used to Know," "Rock Gently," "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name," "The Importance of the Rose," "Without a Worry in the World," and "Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes."
In 1971, McKuen became highly popular in the Netherlands, where "Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes" and "Without a Worry in the World" became major hits, both reaching number one in the Dutch charts; the album Greatest Hits Vol. 3 became a number one record as well. All three discs earned him gold records and he was voted Holland's most popular entertainer.
During the 1970s, McKuen began composing larger-scale orchestral compositions, writing a series of concertos, suites, symphonies, and chamber pieces for orchestra. His piece The City: A Suite for Narrator and Orchestra, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. He continued publishing a steady stream of poetry books throughout the decade. In 1977, he published Finding My Father, a chronicle of his search for information on his biological father. The book and its publicity helped make such information more readily available to adopted children. He also continued to record, releasing albums such as New Ballads (1970), Pastorale (1971), and the country-rock outing McKuen Country (1976).
McKuen continued to perform concerts around the world and appeared regularly at New York's Carnegie Hall throughout the 1970s, making sporadic appearances as recently as the early 2000s.
In 1973, at forty, McKuen radically changed his outward appearance ; He no longer bleached his hair and he grew a beard.
McKuen retired from live performances in 1981. The following year, he was diagnosed with clinical depression, which he battled for much of the next decade. He continued to write poetry, however, and made appearances as a voice-over actor in The Little Mermaid and the TV series The Critic.
2001 saw the publication of McKuen's A Safe Place to Land, which contains 160 pages of new poetry. For 10 years he gave an annual birthday concert at Carnegie Hall or the Lincoln Center. He released the double CD The Platinum Collection and was remastering all of his RCA and Warner Bros. recordings for release as CD boxed sets. In addition to his artistic pursuits he was the Executive President of the American Guild of Variety Artists, a post he held longer than any other man or woman elected to the position.
McKuen lived in Southern California with his brother Edward, whom he called his "partner," and four cats in a large rambling Spanish house built in 1928, which housed one of the world's largest private record collections.
Rod McKuen died of respiratory arrest, a result of pneumonia, at a hospital in Beverly Hills, California, on January 29, 2015. He is interred at Westwood Village Cemetery.
Despite his popular appeal, McKuen's work was never taken seriously by critics or academics. Michael Baers observed in Gale Research's St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture that "through the years his books have drawn uniformly unkind reviews. In fact, criticism of his poetry is uniformly vituperative ..."
Frank W. Hoffmann, in Arts and Entertainment Fads, described McKuen's poetry as "tailor-made for the 1960s ... poetry with a verse that drawled in country cadences from one shapeless line to the next, carrying the rusticated innocence of a Carl Sandburg thickened by the treacle of a man who preferred to prettify the world before he described it."
Philosopher and social critic Robert C. Solomon described McKuen's poetry as "sweet kitsch," and, at the height of his popularity in 1969, Newsweek magazine called him "the King of Kitsch."
Writer and literary critic Nora Ephron said, "[F]or the most part, McKuen's poems are superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly." Pulitzer Prize-winning US Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro said, "It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet."
In a Chicago Tribune interview with McKuen in 2001 as he was "testing the waters" for a comeback tour, Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic Julia Keller claimed that "Millions more have loathed him [...] finding his work so schmaltzy and smarmy that it makes the pronouncements of Kathie Lee Gifford sound like Susan Sontag," and that his work "drives many people crazy. They find it silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn't pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class" while stating that "The masses ate him up with a spoon, while highbrow literary critics roasted him on a spit." She noted that the third concert on his tour had already been canceled because of sluggish ticket sales.
And Autumn Came (Pageant Press, 1954)
Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows (Stanyan Music, 1966)
Listen to the Warm (Random House, 1967)
Lonesome Cities (Random House, 1968)
And Autumn Came (Revised Edition) (Cheval Books, 1969)
In Someone's Shadow (Cheval Books/Random House, 1969)
Twelve Years of Christmas (Cheval Books/Random House, 1969)
Caught in the Quiet (Stanyan Books, 1970)
Fields of Wonder (Cheval Books/Random House, 1971)
The Carols of Christmas (Cheval Books/Random House, 1971)
And to Each Season (Simon and Schuster, 1972)
Moment to Moment (Cheval Books, 1972)
Come to Me in Silence (Simon and Schuster, 1973)
Moment to Moment (Revised Edition) (Simon and Schuster, 1974)
Beyond the Boardwalk (Cheval Books, 1975)
Celebrations of the Heart (Simon and Schuster, 1975)
The Sea Around Me... (Simon and Schuster, 1975)
Coming Close to the Earth (Simon and Schuster, 1978)
We Touch the Sky (Simon and Schuster, 1979)
The Power Bright and Shining (Simon and Schuster, 1980)
A Book of Days (Harper and Row, 1980)
The Beautiful Strangers (Simon and Schuster, 1981)
Book of Days and a Month of Sundays (Harper and Row, 1981)
The Sound of Solitude (Harper and Row, 1983)
Suspension Bridge (Harper and Row, 1984)
Intervals (Harper and Row/Cheval Books, 1986)
Valentines (Harper and Row/Cheval Books, 1986)
A Safe Place to Land (Cheval Books, 2001)
Rusting in the Rain (Cheval Books, 2004)
The Songs of Rod McKuen (Cheval Books, 1969)
With Love (Stanyan Books, 1970)
New Ballads (Stanyan Books, 1970)
Pastorale (Stanyan Books, 1971)
The Carols Christmas (Cheval/Random House, 1971)
Grand Tour (Stanyan Books, 1972)
Finding My Father (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1976)
An Outstretched Hand (Cheval Books/Harper and Row, 1980)
Seasons in the Sun (Pocket Books, 1974)
Alone (Pocket Books, 1975)
Hand in Hand (Pocket Books, 1977)
Finding My Father (Cheval Books/Berkeley Books, 1977)
Love's Been Good to Me (Pocket Books, 1979)
Looking for a Friend (Pocket Books, 1980)
Too Many Midnights (Pocket Books, 1981)
Watch for the Wind (Pocket Books, 1983)
About Me (SPC 3189)
After Midnight (SR 6029 • CD STZ 105)
Alone (BS 2817)
Alone After Dark (DL 8946)
Anywhere I Wander (DL 3882)
The Beautiful Strangers (WS 1722)
The Black Eagle, A Gothic Musical (2SR 5087)
Blessings in Shade of Green (SR 5005)
Cycles (BDS 5138)
For Friends and Lovers (DJF 20537)
Global (SR 5102)
Goodtime Music (BS 2861)
Have a Nice Day (SR 5032)
In a Lonely Place (KA 3226)
In the Beginning (SUS 5273)
It Had To Be You (DID M20)
Jerome Kern Revisited Vol. IV, with Ballard, Short, and Cook (PS 1380 CD 113)
Lonely Summer (BR 0034)
The Loner (RCA 3508)
The Love Movement (ST 2838)
Through European Windows (LSP 3786)
The Sounds of Day, the Sounds of Night (SPC 3225)
Love's Been Good to Me (SR 5009)
McKuen Country (BS 2931)
Rod McKuen Sings (ST 2079)
More Rod McKuen 77 (SR 5092)
Mr. Oliver Twist (JU 5013)
New Ballads (WS 1837)
New Carols for Christmas – The Rod McKuen Christmas Album (SR 5045)
New Sounds in Folk Music (VE 1612)
Odyssey (BS 2638)
Other Kinds of Songs (RCA 3635)
Pastorale (2WS 1894)
Pastures Green (SR 5047)
Roads (SR 5098)
Rod (SR 5025)
The Rod McKuen Folk Album (SR 5006)
Rod McKuen Sings the McKuen/Brel Songbook (SR 6028; WB 2785)
The Rod McKuen Show (WS 3015)
Rod McKuen Sings His Own (RCA 3424)
Rod 77 (SR 5093)
Seasons in the Sun (SR 5003)
Seasons in the Sun, 2 (SR 5004)
Seasons in the Sun, 1 and 2 (SR 5046)
The Single Man (LSP 4010)
Sleep Warm (BS 2889)
Sleep Warm (2SR 5081)
Slide ... Easy In (DS 7017)
Slide ... On the Move (DIS 60 531)
Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes (HJS 180)
Someone to Watch Over Me (SR 6050)
Songs for the Lazy (LRP 3011)
Songs Our Mummy Taught Us, with Bob McFadden (BL 754056)
Stranger in Town (KS 3538)
There's a Hoot Tonight (WP 1632)
Through European Windows (LSP 3786)
Turntable (SR 5100)
Two Against the Morning, with Liesbeth List (PH 6641 057)
Very Warm (DE 4603)
Beatsville (R 419)
The Essential Rod McKuen (3BS 2906)
In Search of Eros (BN 613)
Listen to The Warm (LSP 3863; SR 5052)
Listen to the Warm (SR 5048)
Lonesome Cities (WS 1758)
Pushing the Clouds Away (SR 5110)
Time of Desire (SR 5078)
The Word (DS 7000)
The Yellow Unicorn, with Tak Shindo and Julie Meredith (LP 12036)
Symphony No. 1 in 4 Movements (SR 9005)
Concerto For Guitar & Orchestra: 5 Orchestral Pieces (SR 9006)
Concerto For 4 Harpsichords: 4 Orchestral Pieces (SR 9007)
Piano Variations: 6 Piano Sonatas (SR 9008)
Conducts McKuen (SR 9010)
Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra (SR 9012)
The Plains of My Country: Seascapes for Solo Piano (SR 9015)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Music for Strings (SR 9021)
Concerto For Balloon and Orchestra: 3 Overtures (SR 9023)
The Ballad of Distances: Symphonic Suite, Op. 40 (WB 2WS 2731)
Piano Quartets: Piano Trios (SR 9060)
The City: I Hear America Singing, 2 Cantatas (LS 732)
Written in the Stars (The Zodiac Suite) (CRL 57339)
Something Beyond: Suite for Orchestra (LST 7537)
The Borrowers, soundtrack (SRQ 4014)
A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Other Rod McKuen Film Songs (SR 5010)
A Boy Named Charlie Brown, soundtrack (OS 3500)
Emily, soundtrack (SRQ 4025)
Joanna, soundtrack (SR 4202)
Lisa Bright and Dark, soundtrack (SR 10094)
Me, Natalie, with Henry Mancini, soundtrack (OS 3350)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, soundtrack (TC 4207)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Rod McKuen singing and conducting his score (WB 1853)
Rock, Pretty Baby, with Henry Mancini, soundtrack (DL 8429)
Scandalous John, soundtrack (SR 5004)
Summer Love, with Henry Mancini, soundtrack (DL 8714)
The Unknown War, soundtrack (2SR 9201)
The Amsterdam Concert (2SR 5051)
Back to Carnegie Hall (2WB 2732)
Evening in Vienna, with Greta Keller (SR 5040)
Grand Tour (2BR 1947)
Grand Tour, Vol. 3 (SR 5042)
Rod McKuen in Concert (SR 5001)
Rod McKuen Live Across Australia and Around the World (SR 6031)
Rod McKuen Live at the Sydney Opera House (SR 5075)
Rod McKuen Live at the Sydney Opera House (L 70041/2)
Rod McKuen Live in Africa (SYD 11000)
Rod McKuen Live in London (2SR 5016)
Rod McKuen Live / Sold Out Carnegie Hall (WS 1794, WBC 1100B)
Greatest hits and compilations
The Beat Generation (R2 70281)
The Best of Rod McKuen (RCA 4127)
Bits and Pieces (DL 75078)
The Early Years: The Best of Rod McKuen (SYC 2901)
Greatest Australian Hits (PW 6026)
Rod McKuen: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (WS 1772)
Rod McKuen: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (BS 2560)
Rod McKuen: Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (SR 5031)
Rod McKuen: Greatest Hits, Vol. 4 (BS 2688)
If You Go Away: The RCA Years 1965–1968 (BCD 16122 GL)
In the Beginning (SLS 96083)
Love Songs (2SR 5073)
A Portrait of Rod McKuen (SR 5072)
Rod on Record (SR 5104)
Try Rod McKuen in the Privacy of Your Own Home (SR 5020)
Without a Worry in the World (BR 408, TIXD 420)
With Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings
Lyrics, book, and musical storylines by Rod McKuen; music composed, arranged, and conducted by Anita Kerr.
The Sea (WBL 1047, WB 1670)
The Earth (WBL 1046, WB 1705)
The Sky (WB 1720)
Home to the Sea (WBC 1080, WS 1764)
The Soft Sea (WS 1839)
La Mer (SR 10043)
For Lovers (WB 1795)
Bouquet (BS 2768)
Spring Summer (BS4 2707)
Autumn Winter (BS 2622)
With Love (BS 2837)
The Sea / The Earth / The Sky (3WS 1730)
The Complete Sea (3WS 1827)
The Seasons (4WS 2754)
17 New Songs by Rod McKuen (IM 1000)
Short Cuts from Pastorale (PRO 451)
Some of the Best of Rod McKuen (SPS 33–554)
20 New Rod McKuen Songs (SML 102)
1. "Rod McKuen, Top-Selling Poet and Performer, Dies at 81". The Wall Street Journal. Associated Press. January 29, 2015.
2. Huey, Steve. "Rod McKuen Biography". AllMusic.
3. Fox, Margalit (January 29, 2015). "Rod McKuen, Poet and Lyricist With Vast Following, Dies at 81". The New York Times.
4. McKuen, Rod (August 2002). "Flight Plan". Rod McKuen.
5. Hoffmann, Frank; Ramirez, Beaulah B. (1990). Arts and Entertainment Fads. Routledge. p. 168. ISBN 978-0866568814.
6. Greenman, Ben (May 1, 2012). "Listening Booth: Gene Ween's Solo Debut". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 31, 2015.
7. Caulfield, Keith (January 29, 2015). "Rod McKuen's Surprising Chart History". Billboard. Retrieved January 31, 2015.
8. Whitburn, Joel (2013). Top Pop Singles 1955-2012 (14th ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 556. ISBN 0-89820-205-1.
9. Whitburn, Joel (2013). Top Pop Singles 1955-2012 (14th ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 560. ISBN 0-89820-205-1.
10. "Rod McKuen: Poet, songwriter and distinctively voiced singer who was nominated for an Oscar and worked with Jacques Brel and Frank Sinatra". Los Angeles Times. January 30, 2015.
11. "Rod McKuen". TV Guide (Carolina-Tennessee Edition): A–10. May 10–16, 1969.
12. Herald Scotland obituary, 3 February 2015.
13. Whitburn, Joel (2007). Top Adult Songs 1961-2006. Record Research, Inc. ISBN 0-89820-169-1.
14. Rod McKuen in Concert Brochure, 1972, Cheval/Stanyan Company, Hollywood
15. McKuen, Rod. "Biography". Rod McKuen.
16. Baers, Michael, "Rod McKuen", Find articles.
17. Solomon, Robert C. (2004). In Defense of Sentimentality. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 236. ISBN 0-19-514550-X.
18. "King of Kitsch", Newsweek, November 4, 1968, pp. 111, 114.
19. Ephron, Nora (2007). Wallflower at the Orgy. Bantam. p. 181. ISBN 0-553-38505-4.
20. Keller, Julia (March 6, 2001). "Where Had You Gone, Rod Mckuen?". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on December 17, 2011.