LOCAL OBITUARIES

Scott McKenzie dies at 73; his 'San Francisco' caught flower-power wave

Scott McKenzie, whose 1967 hit single "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" captured the spirit of the '60s flower-power movement and became a generational touchstone, has died. He was 73.

McKenzie died Saturday at his home in Silver Lake, said Matt Pook, a longtime friend and neighbor. A statement on McKenzie's website said he had been ill with Guillain Barre syndrome, a disease affecting the nervous system.

"If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair," McKenzie gently sang in his biggest hit, written by his longtime friend, John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas.

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.

"Scott sang like an angel. He had one of the most beautiful voices that ever had a rock 'n' roll hit."

"San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," which was released in May 1967, rose to No. 4 on the Billboard chart and became a No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom and most of Europe.

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, Adler said.

"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 "No. 1 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 the Phillips-written "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.

Born Philip Blondheim on Jan. 10, 1939, in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., McKenzie developed an interest in singing and playing guitar as a teenager in the mid-1950s. He was singing in a vocal group when he met Phillips in Alexandria, Va.

They formed a quartet called the Abstracts, which became the Smoothies in 1959. After recording a few pop singles, McKenzie and Phillips formed a folk trio with Dick Weissman called the Journeymen, which recorded for Capitol Records in the early '60s.

McKenzie reportedly turned down an opportunity to join the Mamas & the Papas in the 1960s, preferring to attempt a solo career.

But in the late '80s, when original Mamas and 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."

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 and Doherty in 2007.

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

He had no immediate surviving family members.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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