Rod McKuen was one of the best-selling poets in America during the late '60s, and also achieved considerable success as a songwriter, soundtrack composer, and singer. McKuen's recordings alternated between poetic pop songs and spoken word readings of his verse, and his more serious composition work earned him two Oscar nominations and one Pulitzer nomination. Additionally, his translations helped bring the work of legendary Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel to prominence in English-speaking countries. His literary work often dealt with themes of love, nature, and spirituality, and critics didn't always accept it, some deriding it as simplistic and sentimental. However, even as his initial flower-child audience grew older, McKuen remained as popular as he was prolific, selling millions of copies of his books (having written upward of 30) and increasingly becoming the subject of academic study.
Rodney Marvin McKuen was born on April 29, 1933, in Oakland, California. He lived with his mother and stepfather, the latter a frequently violent alcoholic, and ran away from home at age 11. He drifted up and down the West Coast, working a succession of odd jobs -- ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, radio DJ, and more -- and sending some of the money home to his mother. Seeking to make up for his relative lack of formal education, he started keeping a journal, which grew into a regular writing habit and resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. He found work as a newspaper columnist, and served in the Korean War as a propaganda script writer. Returning to the U.S. and settling in San Francisco, he read his poetry alongside Beat icons like Kerouac and Ginsberg, and began performing as a singer at the famed Purple Onion -- first folk songs, then original material. His regular appearances led to a recording contract and several late-'50s pop albums for Decca. He also attempted to start a career as an actor, appearing in the rock & roll-themed pictures Rock, Pretty Baby (1956) and Summer Love (1958), also performing some of their music, as well as the Western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton's band, and moved to New York in 1959 to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop.
McKuen spent most of the earlier part of the '60s in France, where he met many of the country's top songwriters. He began a lengthy project to translate the work of legendary singer/songwriter Jacques Brel into English, and his efforts helped make "If You Go Away" into an all-time pop standard; elsewhere, British singer Scott Walker recorded many of McKuen's adaptations in the late '60s, and Terry Jacks turned the translated "Seasons in the Sun" into a chart-topping pop hit. McKuen also translated songs by numerous other French writers, including prominent names like Gilbert Bécaud, Pierre Delanoé, Michel Sardou, and many more. McKuen began to publish books of poetry during the latter half of the '60s, and earned a substantial following among the hippie generation with collections like Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, Listen to the Warm, and Lonesome Cities. Additionally, his Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968.
McKuen recorded most of his spoken word albums for RCA, and reserved his musical efforts for Warner Bros. Starting in 1967, he teamed with arranger Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings for a series of mellow 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). McKuen found increasing acclaim for his songwriting in 1969: having recorded "If You Go Away," Frank Sinatra commissioned an entire album of poems and songs, which was released under the title A Man Alone: The Words & Music of McKuen and featured "Love's Been Good to Me," which went on to become one of McKuen's best-known songs. Additionally, McKuen earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song, thanks to "Jean," his theme for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; "Jean" had been recorded by Oliver for a number two pop smash. McKuen's work on the score of A Boy Named Charlie Brown earned him a second Oscar nomination in 1970, and his co-write "I Think of You" was a major adult contemporary hit for Perry Como in 1971. Other popular McKuen compositions of the era 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," among others.
McKuen later moved into larger-scale classical-style composition, writing a series of concertos, suites, symphonies, and chamber pieces for orchestra. His piece The City: A Suite for Narrator & Orchestra was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. He cranked out a steady stream of poetry during the '70s, and his 1977 book Finding My Father, a chronicle of his search for information on his biological father, helped spark changes in the availability of such information to adopted children. He also continued to record on an intermittent basis, including albums like New Ballads (1970), Pastorale (1971), the country-rock outing McKuen Country (1976), and the disco pastiche Slide...Easy In, a campy outing with strong gay undertones that produced a European hit in "Amor, Amor." McKuen retired from live performance in 1981, and a year later 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. Rod McKuen died of pneumonia in Beverly Hills, California on January 29, 2015; he was 81 years old. ~ Steve Huey