Rod McKuen, who died earlier this week, is rightly celebrated as a poet and songwriter. Less frequently noted in his obituaries, are his talents – instincts, maybe — as a businessman. As he became successful, McKuen formed his own Stanyan Records label; issuing albums by himself and by artists he admired including singers Greta Keller, Noel Coward, Chris Connor, Hildegarde, Dinah Shore, Felicia Sanders and several film composers.– either produced by Rod himself or leased from other labels. (The current Stanyan catalog is limited to several of McKuen’s own recordings, with a couple of exceptions).
He was clearly not doing this for the money – the artists weren’t well-known and the label’s distribution was largely by mail order – but out of his love of music.
Also less known is McKuen’s launch as a successful poet – not through an established publisher, but on his own, in what some people might consider a (harmless, to be sure) hustle. When I was writing the notes for a boxed set of McKuen’s RCA recordings (issued on the German Bear Family label and still available), I spoke with many people who had worked with him through the years, including singer Glenn Yarbrough. Once a member of the Limeliters “folk” vocal trio, Yarbrough embarked on a solo career.
Here’s an excerpt from those liner notes.
“I had just become successful on my own,” Yarbrough explains, “and had ‘Baby The Rain Must Fall’ and several hit albums. I’d recorded one or two of Rod’s songs – ‘Isle In The Water’ and ‘The Lovers’ among them. I’ve forgotten now how I got them, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know him at the time.
“One day he came walking down my driveway in the Hollywood hills, dropping sheet music and all sorts of stuff. He didn’t drive, so he’d taken a cab up there. He wanted me to hear his material. I prefer to have songs sent to me, but I couldn’t just turn him away. He sang some songs for me, and I offered a three-year contract to work with him exclusively. We set up a publishing company together, and he lived in a cottage on my property.”
Yarbrough decided to record an entire album of McKuen songs. “I was going through a bitter divorce, and was kind of down and out anyway – well, down, but not out. The songs on ‘The Lonely Things’ were so depressing, I didn’t think anybody would want to hear them. It turned out to be the biggest album I’d ever made.” A highly productive partnership was born; and the success of his songs had persuaded RCA to follow [RCA a&r man Neely] Plumb’s urging, and sign the songwriter to his own contract.
Something else happened, according to Yarbrough. “The album was put together and released while I was in Europe. When I came back, I discovered that he’d written on the album cover that the lyrics were from a book, and gave an address. I asked him what book he was offering, and he replied that he didn’t have a book yet. I told him to sit…down and start writing. We started a book publishing company. And before long I had 20 secretaries sending books out.”
The book – ‘Stanyan Street And Other Sorrows’ – was also available through some stores, Rod explains. “My [half] brother Edward used to drive up the California coast, selling them to bookstores. We went through 70,000 copies before we sold the title to Random House. They gave me a $350 advance for ‘Listen To The Warm,’ which has now sold 31,000,000 copies, worldwide.”