By Richie Unterberger
One-shot hits by radio and television personalities have long been an occasional feature of the pop charts. Sometimes these were by DJs and/or actors turned recording artists, with the Big Bopper, Soupy Sales, John Zacherle, and Rick Dees being just a few of the more famous. Sometimes they sang, or tried to sing. At other times the spoken words from their golden throats were good enough. And it was a spoken narration that television host Les Crane gave to the poem "Desiderata," one of the most off-the-wall Top Ten hits of the early 1970s.
"Desiderata"'s laid-back message of hope and inspiration, bathed in sentiment at the very crossroads where hippie culture turned into the new age movement, was very much in keeping with the early 1970s. In fact, however, the lyrics originated in the early twentieth century, and have long been incorrectly rumored to date from much earlier. They were actually written as a poem by Indiana lawyer Max Ehrmann back in 1906 and copyrighted under the title "Go Placidly Amid the Noise and Haste" in 1927, the copyright renewed about 20 years later by Ehrmann's wife.
The poem's long journey to the Top Ten really began in the 1950s, when a Baltimore pastor used it in a collection of material for the congregation of Old St. Paul's Church. The booklet's letterhead -- "Old St. Paul's Church, Baltimore, A.D. 1692" -- led readers to believe that the poem itself had been discovered in that church in 1692. The verses began circulating outside of the church, eventually gaining so much in popularity that a copy was found on Adlai Stevenson's bedside table when the famous Democratic politician died in 1965, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry kept a copy in his office. They were also printed on posters that circulated in the counterculture, and Les Crane came across the poem on a poster before deciding to put it on record. (The word "desiderata" itself, incidentally, is Latin for "those things most needed or to be desired," as the translation was given on the LP's back cover.)
Prior to the "Desiderata" single's release, Crane had already enjoyed a long and notable career as a radio personality and TV talk show host. In the mid-1960s, he hosted late-night talk shows on ABC-TV in the network's attempt to compete with Johnny Carson's program. As a talk show host, he occasionally intersected with rock'n'roll history: the Rolling Stones made their first American TV appearance on Crane's show in June 1964, and Bob Dylan did a rare TV spot with Crane in early 1965. Crane was also known as actress Tina Louise's husband, and tried his hand at acting in the obscure 1966 film An American Dream.
Crane's smooth, restorative tones and delivery proved eminently suitable for intoning the poem over a musical backing track composed, arranged, and conducted by Fred Werner. Just as crucial to getting song on the radio, perhaps, were the rich, wailing female gospel-soul backup vocals, which took center stage on both the a cappella intro and the "you are a child of the universe" chorus. Released as a single on Warner Brothers, it zoomed to #8 in late 1971. Such was its popularity that at the end of the year, Billboard even reported that Spanish and French versions were in the works.
Though not quite as popular, the Desiderata album also did well, peaking at #32. It too featured narration by Crane over musical pieces composed and arranged by Werner, though "Friends" was the only one whose words were written by Crane himself. The rest of the tracks set music to inspirational prose from a variety of sources. "Independence" and "Nature" were taken from Henry David Thoreau; "Esperanza" was excerpted from Maxim Gorky's novel Mother; "Love" adapted from Dorothy L. Nolte's poem "Children Learn What They Live"; and "Vision" taken from a traditional American Indian poem.
Musically, the backing was a quirky, curious stew of the gospel-soul anchored by singers Evangeline & Carol Carmichael, easy listening arrangements, and touches of early-'70s period rock and AM pop. The instrumentation was handled by A-level Los Angeles session men who between them had a boatload of prestigious credits, ranging from the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album (flute player Jim Horn) to Phil Spector, the Monkees, and Frank Zappa. Crane isn't even heard on every track; women singers take all the vocals on "Beauty," while a kiddie chorus handles "Happiness." Native American actor and cultural preservation activist Semu Huaute is also credited for his contribution to "Vision."
Crane won a Grammy for "Desiderata" in the category for the best spoken word recording. However, his success as a recording artist didn't come without a price. "Desiderata" itself had been thought to be in public domain when it was recorded, but royalties had to be shared with the Ehrmann family. It was an ironic development in light of the poem's admonition to "exercise caution in your business affairs."
More amusingly, National Lampoon recorded a devastating parody of "Desiderata," retitled "Deteriorata," on their 1972 album Radio Dinner. Norman Rose took the poker-faced place of Crane, advising listeners to "go placidly amid the noise and waste," and declaring on the chorus, "You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here. And whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back." The pseudo-gospel-soul backup vocals were handled by a then-little-known Melissa Manchester. The song got a second life a few years later on Dr. Demento's syndicated radio show, on which "Deteriorata" became a firm favorite, reaching the ears of many listeners who might have never heard the song it was satirizing.
Crane's career as
artist was brief, and he eventually left media altogether in the 1980s
to work as chairman of Software Toolworks, who did brisk business with
the three-dimension color chess game Chessmaster 2000. Asked about
by the Los Angeles Times in 1987, Crane replied, "I can't
to it now without gagging," adding that he was fonder of National
"Deteriorata" parody. The poem on which his hit single was based,
continues to sell, circulate, and reach new readers every year, long
its hit musical adaptation left the airwaves.
-- Richie Unterberger
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