August 18, 2012 – Scott McKenzie was born Philip Wallach Blondheim III in Jacksonville, Florida on January 10, 1939.
His family moved to Asheville, North Carolina, when he was six months old and he grew up in North Carolina and Virginia, where he became friends with the son of one of his mother’s friends, John Phillips. In the mid-1950s, he sang briefly with Tim Rose in a high school group called The Singing Strings, and later with Phillips, Mike Boran, and Bill Cleary when they formed a doo wop band, The Abstracts.
In New York, The Abstracts became The Smoothies and recorded two singles with Decca Records, produced by Milt Gabler. During his time with The Smoothies, Blondheim decided to change his name for business reasons:
“We were working at one of the last great night clubs, The Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario. We were part of a variety show … three acts, dancing girls, and the entire cast took part in elaborate, choreographed stage productions … As you might imagine, after-show parties were common.
“At one of these parties I complained that nobody could understand my real name…and pointed out that this was a definite liability in a profession that benefited from instant name recognition. Everyone started trying to come up with a new name for me. It was comedian Jackie Curtis who said he thought I looked like a Scottie dog. Phillips came up with Laura’s middle name after Jackie’s suggestion. I didn’t like being called “Scottie” so everybody agreed my new name could be Scott McKenzie.”
In 1961 Phillips and McKenzie met Dick Weissman and formed the folk group, The Journeymen, at the height of the folk music craze. They recorded three albums and seven singles for Capitol Records. After The Beatles became popular in 1964, The Journeymen disbanded. McKenzie and Weissman became solo performers, while Phillips formed the group The Mamas & the Papas with Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips and moved to California.
McKenzie originally declined an opportunity to join the group, saying in a 1977 interview, “I was trying to see if I could do something by myself. And I didn’t think I could take that much pressure”. Two years later, he left New York and signed with Lou Adler’s Ode Records.
San Francisco was written with McKenzie in mind. Phillips orchestrated the session, playing the acoustic guitar himself and bringing in bassist Joe Osborn and drummer Hal Blaine, who had played on most of the Mamas and the Papas recordings, plus Gary L. Coleman on bells and chimes, to give the song a happy, springtime feel. San Francisco, as its parenthetical subtitle suggested, implored listeners to make their way west, flowers strategically placed:”For those who come to San Francisco Summertime will be a love-in there. In the streets of San Francisco Gentle people with flowers in their hair
It was released on 13 May 1967 in the United States and was an instant hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 2 in the Canadian RPM Magazine charts. It was also a number 1 in the UK and several other countries, selling over seven million copies globally.
Perhaps too ironically, the song was written and recorded by people from Los Angeles.
The song is credited with having added to the mass of youths arriving in the city for what became known as the Summer of Love. Whether San Francisco was equipped to handle such an invasion and its attendant problems was a bone of contention at the time. Many residents, including hippies who’d already been enjoying the city’s freedoms, resented the newcomers as well. Some of the local bands openly scoffed at the song, calling it nave and hokey, not to mention intrusive on their scene.
You know who really hated San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair?
The city officials of San Francisco! It was apparent by the early months of 1967 that their city was going to be receiving an influx of young people once school let out and the weather warmed up some higher-ups were predicting that thousands of them might besiege the city, jobless, homeless, many of them taking drugs and congregating on the streets without a care in the world. The migration had already begun in 1965-66, the city’s population swelling with seekers of love and life (many of them runaways escaping boring lives in boring midwest places), drawn to the vibrant, freewheeling culture and physical beauty of the city. In particular they were swarming to the Haight-Ashbury district, adjacent to Golden Gate Park. They’d spend their days lying about in that park and their evenings at one of the city’s newly sprouted rock music ballrooms, where they’d listen and dance to new bands with odd names like Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. For the youth, San Francisco was a mecca, a place one could go to be around similarly inclined outcasts from around the country. Living was cheap and no one minded sleeping on the floor of a crash pad in one of the Haight’s trippy Victorian houses with a dozen new friends, toking on joints (or maybe popping a tab of Owsley acid) and passing bottles of cheap wine while the record player blasted out newly released albums like the Beatles’ Â Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced. In January 1967 they held a Human Be-In to celebrate the very existence of their community.
Nonetheless, San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair) and its message of communality and gentle vibes struck a chord with a growing segment of the nation (and abroad) for which the phrase flower power was a new rallying cry against the Vietnam War. Many came to San Francisco to have a look, including both George Harrison and Paul McCartney and some even came to stay, like Janis. Most hung out for a little while and then moved on, either back home or, perhaps, to rural communes or other communities built around like-minded folks. Millions who never got near the Golden Gate Bridge simply liked the easy-flowing song enough to make it a quick success.
McKenzie followed the song with “Like An Old Time Movie”, also written and produced by Phillips, which was a minor hit (number 27 in Canada). His first album, The Voice of Scott McKenzie, was followed with an album called Stained Glass Morning. McKenzie also penned the song “Hey! What About Me” that launched the career of Canadian singer Anne Murray in 1968.
Scott ‘dropped out’ in the late 60’s. In 1970 he moved to Joshua Tree, a California desert town near Palm Springs. In 1973 he went to Virginia Beach, VA, where he lived for 10 years.
In 1986, original Papa’s Denny Doherty and John Phillips, with Mackenzie Phillips (John Phillips’ daughter) and Spanky McFarlane (ex Spanky and Our Gang) as female vocalists took a new version of the group onto the nostalgia circuit. Later, when Denny left the group, Scott joined John Phillips as the second Papa. However, when John left due to ill health, Denny returned and Scott took the role vacated by John Phillips.
In 1988 Scott co-wrote the Beach Boys hit Kokomo with John Phillips, Beach Boy Mike Love and the late Terry Melcher, long time producer of the Beach Boys.
Scott spent much of the 1990’s touring with the Mamas and Papas. Eventually, with no original members left, the group disbanded in 1998.
In the 21st Century Scott still performed on occasion. He performed in Germany and in 2003 performed on a PBS Folk special. During March 2005, PBS broadcast a concert called “My Generation — the 60’s Experience.” In the show Scott sings San Francisco and at the end of the program ‘unannounced’ a song called We’ve Been Asking Questions, one of the last songs written by John Phillips before his death in 2001.
In 2009 Scott recorded the Denny Doherty song Gone To Sea Again.
In retirement Scott lived in LA and became a big fan of Facebook where he had many friends in his “Asylum”. Scott was in and out of hospital since 2010 after falling ill with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease affecting the nervous system. It is thought he may have had a heart attack in early August, 2012. Staff did not want him to leave the hospital, but he wanted to be at home and passed away on 18th August 2012. He was 73.