Singer-Songwriter Scott McKenzie, 73, Dies

Singer, Scott McKenzie, known for recording 60s generational anthem, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” died Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012 at his home in Silver Lake. A statement on his website said he had been ill with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a disease affecting the nervous system.

“San Francisco,” written by McKenzie’s close friend John Phillips of The Mamas and Papas, was a huge hit in 1967.

It came in the midst of growing opposition to the Vietnam War and became the anthem for the ‘Flower Power’ movement.

In 2002, McKenzie wrote: “I am amazed at how San Francisco continues even now to evoke dreams in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.”

The death of the folk star was confirmed by another neighbor, Victoria Byers, who said he had been in and out of hospital in recent months. She said: “I think he had a heart attack this most recent time he was in the hospital. They did not want him to leave the hospital, but he wanted to be in his house [when he died]”.

Born Philip Wallach Blondheim in January 1939, the singer, songwriter and guitarist grew up in North Carolina where he lived with his grandparents while his widowed mother worked in Washington DC.

McKenzie formed his first band, The Abstracts, with his teenaged pal Phillips and they became The Smoothies after moving to New York.

He adopted his stage name after complaints that Blondheim was hard to pronounce.

In the early sixties he and Phillips worked with banjo player Dick Weissman in The Journeymen and recorded three albums, before breaking up in 1964.

Phillips went on to form The Mamas and Papas but McKenzie opted to go solo.

In the late ’80s, when original Mamas and the Papas member Denny Doherty left the new version of the group he and Phillips had formed, McKenzie replaced Doherty.

“I actually picked him up four years ago to play guitar in our backup band,” Phillips told The Times in 1990. “He was doing yardwork in Virginia Beach, riding his bicycle, as healthy as a hummingbird, and then I came along and ruined his life once again.

“When Denny quit, it was only natural to move [McKenzie] up to the front line. I remember the night we told him, he almost collapsed on the spot. Denny had to go up and say, ‘You can do it’ — he never had any confidence in himself.”

“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” penned by Phillips and featuring him on guitar, was his only significant hit. It soared to the number four spot in the US Billboard 100, and number one in the UK.

Phillips was inspired to write the song by the large influx of young people to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and by the “gentleness and the love that he felt in the hippie movement,” said Lou Adler, whose Ode Records released “San Francisco.”

“That’s where the line ‘gentle people’ comes from,” Adler, who co-produced “San Francisco” with Phillips, told The Times on Sunday. “John Phillips was a poet, and he was able to depict in a lyric a visual of the times. He found the voice in Scott McKenzie that was perfect for it, so smooth and beautiful.

The song was released a month before the landmark Monterey International Pop Festival, which Phillips and Adler produced.

McKenzie sang “San Francisco” during the Mamas & the Papas’ set, and the song was used over the opening visuals of the ensuing “Monterey Pop” documentary.

But having “San Francisco” described as a “flower-power anthem” or a “generational touchstone” made McKenzie uncomfortable, said Adler.

“Scott was a singer; he loved to sing, and the hits were ancillary to that,” Adler said. “He was comfortable with the success of the record, but not what it made him, sort of iconic to that movement.”

Adler recalled going on a world tour with McKenzie and the Mamas & the Papas when “San Francisco” was “number one in the world, and Scott was dressed in robes and the look of the love generation.”

Large crowds greeted their plane at each stop. But when everyone else got off the plane when it landed in Amsterdam, McKenzie stayed behind.

“It took him awhile, and when he got off he was dressed as a cowboy,” said Adler. “He was never willing to accept the role as the leader of that [flower-power] movement. He was a very gentle soul.”

McKenzie had a minor hit with “Like an Old Time Movie.” But, according to the Scott McKenzie website, he “dropped out” in the late 1960s and moved to Joshua Tree in 1970 and later moved to Virginia Beach, Va.

McKenzie co-wrote the Beach Boys’1988 No. 1 hit “Kokomo” with Phillips, Mike Love and Terry Melcher. The song was used in the Tom Cruise movie “Cocktail.”

When Phillips left the Mamas & the Papas for health reasons in the early 1990s, Doherty returned to the group and McKenzie took over for Phillips. Phillips died in 2001.

McKenzie, according to the McKenzie website, toured with the Mamas & the Papas through much of the ’90s and thereafter performed occasionally.

“Never before or since, with the exception of rap, has popular music contained such sheer poetic and social power,” wrote McKenzie on his website in 2002.

“Even at the end of the decade, when so many of us had lost hope, when the summer of love had turned into a winter of despair, our music helped keep us alive and carry us forward into a world we had hoped to change.

“And so it still does.”

Scott Mckenzie dedicated every American performance of his famous hit to Vietnam veterans, and in 2002 sang at the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.


Guardian Staff

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