In 1967, the residents of Monterey, a quiet fishing village on the coast of California, were worried about hosting a rock festival as they feared that thousands of pot-smoking, free-loving hippies would come from San Francisco and ruin the area.
John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas was on the organising committee, and his friend and fellow singer Scott McKenzie said to him, “Why don’t you write a song to put their minds at rest, to tell them that everything is going to be all right?” Phillips wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)” – but despite its assurances of love and peace, the rest of the Mamas & the Papas never forgave Phillips for passing the song over to McKenzie.
Scott McKenzie was born Philip Blondheim in Jacksonville, Florida in 1939. His father died when he was two. He was raised by his grandparents, as his mother worked in Washington DC as a secretary to General George Marshall, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his plan for European recovery in 1953.
In 1953, while living in Virginia, McKenzie befriended John Phillips, who realised how well they could harmonise. They and two friends took much from The Four Freshmen and recorded as The Smoothies in 1960. With the banjo player Dick Weissman they formed a folk trio, The Journeymen, and made several records for Capitol.
“I knew I didn’t have the right name for a singer,” McKenzie told me when he toured the UK as part of The Mamas & the Papas in 1991. “Having a name that nobody could pronounce was hardly an asset.” The comedian Jackie Curtis recommended Scottie, to which was added the name of Phillips’s daughter, Mackenzie.
Like so many American acts, The Journeymen lost heart after The Beatles’ overwhelming success in 1964. Phillips formed The Mamas & the Papas with Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot and his wife, Michelle. McKenzie, meanwhile, auditioned unsuccessfully for The Monkees.
The Mamas & the Papas had success in the charts with “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday”, while McKenzie played 12-string guitar on “Creeque Alley”.
Phillips remembered producing “San Francisco” for McKenzie: “I wanted a song that would express the feelings of the people coming to Monterey. The Olympics appealed to me because they had laurel wreaths in their hair. I wrote it in an afternoon, did a rough dub that evening, hired the players the next morning, and finished it the next night. 36 hours and it was done. I’d known Scott since we were teenagers, and his voice was perfect for the song.”
McKenzie agreed. “My heart was in that song and I didn’t have to change my image. I was already leading a pretty loose life. I was wearing flower shirts, weird flowing robes and kaftans, and we picked flowers the day I recorded the song. One girl gave me a garland of flowers and my friends were sitting in the lotus position, meditating, while I was recording it.”
The Monterey International Pop Festival was a spectacular success. Appearing after Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and The Who, McKenzie closed the festival with “San Francisco”. It topped the UK and US charts and sold seven million copies internationally. “But I couldn’t do The Ed Sullivan Show,” said McKenzie. “Ed said I was a flash in the pan, and he was right.”
That and The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” perfectly captured the Summer of Love. Phillips wrote an excellent follow-up, “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)”, but this time the Mamas & the Papas claimed it. Instead, McKenzie followed his success with “Like An Old Time Movie”, an excellent, bittersweet love song to be sure, but lacking the impact of “San Francisco”. Another Phillips-penned song, “Holy Man”, was an odd choice as it was mocking the fads of the day. McKenzie released an excellent album, The Voice of Scott McKenzie, with Donovan among the guest musicians.
McKenzie had written the B-sides of all three singles, a continuing saga of life today captured in “What’s the Difference” (chapters I, II and III). His second album, Stained Glass Morning (1970), was a reflective collection of songs, all written by himself, the guest musicians including Ry Cooder and Barry McGuire. “Yves” was recorded by The Everly Brothers, while the title song, about the death of a soldier in Vietnam, led to a mistaken report that McKenzie himself had been killed there.
In 1986 McKenzie started singing with a regrouped Mamas & the Papas, which he described as “a travelling rehabilitation circus”. Phillips saw the potential in his song “Kokomo”, and offered to rework it. “He played me the new version,” said McKenzie, “and I said, ‘John, this is wrong. Kokomo is in Indiana. It isn’t off the Florida Keys.’ John said, ‘It is if you want the Beach Boys to cut it.’” The song became a US No 1 and was featured in the Tom Cruise film Cocktail (1988).
In later years, McKenzie performed from time to time, always dedicating “San Francisco” to American soldiers who died in Vietnam. He remained philosophical about his career. “If you have to be a one-hit wonder,” he said, “then ‘San Francisco’ is the one to have.”
Philip Wallach Blondheim (Scott McKenzie), singer: born Jacksonville, Florida 10 January 1939; died Los Angeles 18 August 2012.