Rod McKuen obituary

Singer, songwriter and poet whose work was covered by Frank Sinatra, Madonna and Johnny Cash

Rod McKuen, who has died aged 81, was, at his peak, a cultural phenomenon whose massive success as a songwriter and singer saw him become America’s most popular poet, dubbed The King of Kitsch by Newsweek magazine.

His books of poetry were found both on middle American coffee tables and in the bedrooms of adolescents, reflecting their combination of dreamy romantic loneliness and uplifting platitudes. It was no coincidence that one of McKuen’s biggest hits was the title song for the animated Peanuts film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. A shrewd judge of passing styles and a hardworking promoter of his own work, McKuen produced 30 collections of poems and around 200 recordings of easy-listening music that sold in the millions. But it was his songwriting, covered by artists as varied as Frank Sinatra and Madonna, Dolly Parton and Chet Baker, Johnny Cash and Barbra Streisand, that made his fortune.

McKuen was born in a charity hospital in Oakland, California; his mother had been abandoned by his father. His stepfather beat him regularly and he was sexually abused by relatives, which was even more damaging. “Physical injuries on the outside heal,” he said, “but those scars have never healed and I expect they never will.”

He ran away from home at 11, drifting through a series of later-romanticised labouring jobs. By the age of 15 he was back in San Francisco with a late-night radio show. After army service in Korea, he returned to San Francisco and began singing in clubs and with Lionel Hampton’s band. He had a brief spell as a contract player at Universal Studios, read poetry with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and in 1959 recorded his first album, Beatsville, speaking poems with jazzy music behind. The cover photo might be seen as symbolic of his career and life: a black-haired woman looks at the camera while McKuen stares morosely into his wine glass.

“I tried to be a good beatnik, but it’s hard,” he said. McKuen moved to New York – and pop music. The Mummy, a single recorded with Bob McFadden under the pseudonym Dor, was a top 40 hit in 1959; another novelty song, Oliver Twist, recorded under his own name, charted in 1961. On tour promoting the song, McKuen shattered his voice, turning it from syrupy tenor to deep rasp.

Frustrated, he moved to Paris, where his career path was changed by his friendship with Jacques Brel. McKuen began translating Brel’s songs into English. Ne Me Quitte Pas became If You Go Away and was a hit for Damita Jo in 1966, while Les Biches became The Women for the country-singer Glenn Yarbrough. Yarbrough also used McKuen’s poem Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows for a song, and McKuen then rushed to publish his first popular poetry collection by that name.

Two more poetry collections, Listen to the Warm (1967) and Lonesome Cities (1968) followed quickly; a recording of the latter won a Grammy for best spoken-word album of 1968. His music exploded in popularity too; he had nine records in Billboard’s Hot 200 over the next three years, including six collaborations with the arranger Anita Kerr and The San Sebastian Strings, starting with The Sea. Sinatra admired McKuen’s material so deeply that he commissioned him to write an entire album. A Man Alone (1969) included the hit Love’s Been Good to Me, whose ironic self-pity perfectly suited Sinatra.

That year McKuen sold out Carnegie Hall for a 36th birthday concert and received an Oscar nomination for the song Jean, which he sang over the closing credits of the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Released as a single, it did not sell, but soon afterwards, recorded by the American singer Oliver, it was No 2 in the US charts. In 1974 Terry Jacks’s cover of Seasons in The Sun, McKuen’s version of Brel’s Le Moribond, became a huge worldwide hit.

McKuen’s orchestral piece, The City: Suite for Narrator and Orchestra, with echoes of Aaron Copland, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, a serious counterpoint to his pop music, which switched outward styles, from singer-songwriter pop to psychedelia, culminating in the album McKuen Country (1976), for which he posed, bearded, in denim and checked shirt. He was touring 280 days a year, but found time to write a memoir, Finding My Father (1976), about his search for the father who abandoned him and the painful upbringing that followed. The book influenced debate on the rights of adopted children to learn about their biological parents. Ironically, although McKuen fathered two sons during his stay in Paris, he left them, admitting that his career was more important.

When Brel died in 1978, McKuen said he locked himself in his bedroom “and drank for two weeks”. By 1981 he was exhausted and suffering from clinical depression, so he retired from touring. He lived in a massive Beverley Hills mansion remodelled by his half-brother, Edward Habib; they shared it with a collection of 500,000 records. Apart from occasional appearances, McKuen then did voiceovers, including for the animated film The Little Mermaid and the television series The Critic. In 2001 he published a new collection of poetry, A Safe Place to Land, coincidentally just as Madonna used his song Why I Follow the Tiger in her single Drowned World/Substitute for Love, for which McKuen and Kerr shared a writing credit. “I think Madonna’s lyric is terrific and, by the way, so are the royalties,” he said.

One of his most famous lines was that “it doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love”.

• Rodney Marvin McKuen, songwriter, poet and singer, born 29 April 1933; died 29 January 2015


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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