This Day In Literary History
On April 29th, 1933, the legendary American poet, singer, and songwriter Rod McKuen was born in Oakland, California. In 1944, when he was eleven years old, he ran away from home to escape his violently abusive alcoholic stepfather.
He drifted throughout the West Coast, working at various jobs; he was a logger, a ranch hand, a railroad worker, and even a rodeo cowboy. Despite his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal and writing frequently.
This would lead him to become a poet and writer of song lyrics. He also became a newspaper columnist. During the Korean War, he served his two-year tour of duty as a propaganda scriptwriter. After the war ended, he settled in San Francisco.
His first poetry collection, And Autumn Came, was published in 1954. He was soon reading his poems alongside fellow Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Around this time, Rod McKuen began performing as a singer at the Purple Onion.
The Purple Onion was a famous cellar club in San Francisco where legendary comics such as Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Phyllis Diller, Richard Pryor, and the Smothers Brothers would also perform.
At first, McKuen performed traditional folk songs, then he began writing and performing his own songs. This led him to win a recording contract with Decca Records, for whom he recorded several pop albums.
He tried to start a career as an actor, and appeared in rock n' roll themed movies such as Rock, Pretty Baby (1956) and Summer Love (1958).
McKuen's acting career failed to take off, so in 1959, he moved to New York City to work as a composer and music conductor for the TV show CBS Workshop. In the early 1960s, he moved to France, where he met many of the country's top songwriters.
He struck up a close friendship with legendary Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel and embarked on a project to translate all of Brel's songs into English. His translation of Brel's song If You Go Away became a pop standard. British singer Scott Walker recorded many of McKuen's translations.
When American singer Terry Jacks recorded McKuen's translation of Brel's classic song Seasons in the Sun, it became a #1 hit. McKuen also translated the works of other prominent French songwriters.
In the late 1960s, McKuen published more collections of poetry including Listen to the Warm (1967), Lonesome Cities (1968), and In Someone's Shadow (1969). He also returned to singing and songwriting.
Working with arranger Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings, he recorded a series of 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).
Legendary singer Frank Sinatra, impressed with McKuen's talents, then commissioned an album of his poems and songs, which was released as A Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen.
In the 1970s, McKuen tried his hand at classical compositions, writing concertos, suites, symphonies, and chamber pieces for orchestra. He also wrote film scores and collaborated with legendary composers such as Henry Mancini and John Williams. He earned two Academy Award nominations.
He continued publishing great poetry collections, including Caught in the Quiet (1970), Fields of Wonder (1971), Moment to Moment (1972), and Come to Me in Silence (1973).
In 1977, he published a nonfiction book called Finding My Father, which was a chronicle of his search for his biological father. He became an activist, helping to make information about biological parents available to adopted children.
When he embarked on a concert tour of South Africa, which was segregated under the oppressive apartheid regime, McKuen demanded mixed seating for every one of his concerts, or else he wouldn't perform there.
He retired from live performance in 1981. A year later, he was diagnosed with clinical depression, which he would battle for nearly a decade. He continued to write poetry and appeared as a voice actor in movies and TV shows.
Rod McKuen died in January of 2015 at the age of 81. It has been estimated that he wrote over 1,500 songs during his remarkable career, most of them for other singers. All together, his songs account for over 100,000,000 records sold.
Quote Of The Day
"I try not to put messages in my songs. My only message is man's communication with his fellow man. I want to narrow the gap of strangeness and alienation." - Rod McKuen
Today's video features Rod McKuen being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air in 1978. Enjoy!