The Great Poster Hoax and Other 1971 Obscurities

Go placidly amid the noise and haste
And remember what peace there may be in silence

Those are the opening lines of “Desiderata,” a poem you have most likely heard, somewhere. It was the philosophical rage of 1971. At the end of the year, radio and television talk-show host Les Crane scored a Top-10 hit reciting it, and he would eventually win a spoken-word Grammy for his performance. By the time Crane’s record hit, posters with the words were already on bedroom, dorm-room, and rumpus-room walls around the country. Today, we’d say that “Desiderata” went viral. The self-absorbed 70s were just beginning, and the time was ripe for inspirational, inward-looking, New-Agey doggerel. Additional factors in the rise of “Desiderata” were its alleged age—posters of the poem were emblazoned “Found in Old St. Paul’s Church Baltimore, 1692″—and its anonymity. Les Crane’s 45 credits it to Fred Werner, Crane’s co-producer (for Old St. Paul Productions), but all he wrote was the music over which Crane spoke. The author of the poem was unknown, so it was in the public domain. Right?

Wrong. The author was not unknown: he was Indiana poet Max Ehrmann, who had written “Desiderata” in 1927. (According to the inestimable Snopes.com, the 1692 date was attached to it because a pastor at the Baltimore church reprinted it for his congregation on church letterhead that was emblazoned “Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692,” the year the church was founded.) And while obscure, “Desiderata” was not at all unknown. It had been a favorite of two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and a recitation of it appeared on a 1968 album by Leonard Nimoy. When it began to proliferate in 1971, Ehrmann’s heirs began pursuing legal remedies that eventually resulted in a share of royalties from, among other sources, Crane’s hit recording. And although you can still find it on posters by the dozens, it remains under copyright today.

When Casey Kasem played it on American Top 40 during the week of December 4, 1971, he told the story of the misattributed poem, calling it “the great poster hoax of 1971.” A year later, it inspired the National Lampoon parody “Deteriorata,” which is an entirely different document of its own moment in history (and which went to #93 on the Hot 100). It’s better than “Desiderata,” and even Les Crane is said to have thought so.

Two other records that shared the Top 40 with “Desiderata” as 1971 ended, even more obscure, are diametric opposites, but they’re still worth hearing after all this time.

—Country singer Freddie Hart, who had been recording since 1953 with little sustained success, scored a monster hit with “Easy Loving,” which did three weeks at #1 on the country chart in September and October 1971. It was the first of six straight #1s for Hart over the next two years, and it won just about every award in Nashville, including the CMA’s Song of the Year honors for both 1971 and 1972. The Academy of Country Music named Hart Entertainer of the Year for 1971, and “Easy Loving’ was the #1 country single for the entire year. It even made the Hot 100, reaching #17 in November. “Easy Loving” never made it onto anybody’s good times/great oldies radio station despite its insanely great organ hook and singability—but if you’re looking for the distilled essence of countrypolitan circa 1971, you can’t do better. (And if you like it, you’ll also like Hart’s next single, “My Hang-Up Is You,” which did six weeks at #1 country in early 1972.)

—Donnie Elbert was a falsetto singer born in New Orleans and raised in Buffalo. For a while in the mid 60s, he consciously imitated the sound of Motown to such an extent (while playing all of the instruments himself) that Berry Gordy is said to have offered him a contract primarily as a way of eliminating a competitive threat. Elbert moved to England, where he recorded the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1969, although it sat in the can until 1971, when it became an American hit. In early 1972, his version of the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” would be even bigger than “Where Did Our Love Go,” but despite his track record with the Motown sound, nothing more came of a proposed album of Motown covers except some scattered tracks released years later. Elbert, who died in 1989, remains a favorite among Northern soul fans.

One of the reasons a lot of radio stations resist repeating the 1971 Casey Kasem countdowns is that so much of the music they contain is dated or obscure, and not what most listeners today want to hear. Most listeners, perhaps. But not all.

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One response

  1. great post. My mom took a print of the poem, carefully burned the edges to “age” it, decoupaged it to a small board and hung it on the wall. Viola, the 70’s in a nutshell.

    I believe Les Crane was married to Tina Louise; seems I saw a picture of their wedding with most of the “Gilligan” cast in attendance.

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