​Rod McKuen, mega-selling poet and performer, dies at 81

American musician and composer Rod McKuen performs May 23, 2009 at the The Hague Jazz festival at the World Forum Convention Center in the Dutch capital.

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NEW YORK -- Rod McKuen, the husky-voiced "King of Kitsch" whose music, verse and spoken-word recordings in the 1960s and '70s won him an Oscar nomination and made him one of the best-selling poets in history, has died. He was 81.

McKuen died Thursday morning at a rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills, California, where he had been treated for pneumonia and had been ill for several weeks and was unable to digest food, said his half brother, Edward McKuen Habib.

Until his sabbatical in 1981, McKuen was an astonishingly successful and prolific force in popular culture, turning out hundreds of songs and poems and records, including the Academy Award-nominated song "Jean" for the 1969 film "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

Sentimental, earnest and unashamed, he conjured a New Age spirit world that captivated those who didn't ordinarily like "poetry" and those who craved relief from the war, assassinations and riots of the time.

"I think it's a reaction people are having against so much insanity in the world," he once said. "I mean, people are really all we've got. You know it sounds kind of corny, and I suppose it's a cliche, but it's really true; that's just the way it is."

His best known songs, some written with the Belgian composer Jacques Brel, include "Birthday Boy," ''A Man Alone," ''If You Go Away" and "Seasons In the Sun," a chart-topper in 1974 for Terry Jacks. He was nominated for an Oscar for "Jean" and for "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," the title track for the beloved Peanuts movie.

Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Dolly Parton and Chet Baker were among the many artists who recorded his material, although McKuen often handled the job himself, in a hushed, throaty style he had honed after an early life as a rock singer cracked his natural tenor.