Rodney Marvin McKuen was born on 29 April 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.
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'sSeasons 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 & Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). HisLonesome 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 has said that his most romantic poetry was influenced by American poet Walter Benton's two books of poems.
Rod McKuen has written over 1500 songs, which have accounted for the sale of over 100 million records for such diverse artists as Glenn Yarbrough, Madonna, 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, Frank Sinatra,. and Gene Ween.
In 1959, McKuen released a novelty single with Bob McFadden under the pseudonym Dor on the Brunswick label called The Mummy. In 1961, he had a hit single titled Oliver Twist. McKuen has 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 has garnered him two Academy Award nominations for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Boy Named Charlie Brown.
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; it was released under the titleA Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen. The album featured the song Love's Been Good to Me, which become one of McKuen's best-known songs.
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 very 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.
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 & Orchestra, was nominated for thePulitzer Prize in Music. He continued publishing a steady stream of poetry books throughout the decade. In 1977, he publishedFinding 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 enjoy sell-out concerts around the world and appeared regularly at New York's Carnegie Hall.
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 byLee 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 1973 he radically changed his outward appearance. He no longer bleached his hair and he grew a beard. But his popularity was now in decline.
In 1981, McKuen retired from live performances. 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 inThe Little Mermaid and the TV series The Critic.
McKuen's latest book is 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. His latest album is a double CD, The Platinum Collection. He is currently remastering all of his RCA and Warner Bros. recordings for release as CD boxed sets. In addition to his artistic pursuits, for the past 19 years he has been the president of the American Guild of Variety Artists, a post he has held longer than any other man or woman elected to the position.
McKuen lives in Southern California with his brother and four cats in a large rambling Spanish house built in 1928, which houses one of the world's largest private record collections.
Despite his popular appeal, McKuen's work has never been taken seriously by critics and academics or by much of the public. 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 called his work "so schmaltzy and smarmy that it makes the pronouncements of Kathie Lee Giffordsound like Susan Sontag," "silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn't pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class [...] 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.