SCOTT MCKENZIE (1939-2012)

Singer-songwriter Scott McKenzie is best known for his 1967 recording of John Phillips’ “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which became an anthem of hope and freedom for the counterculture movement. He was born Philip Blondheim on January 10, 1939, in Jacksonville Florida. His family moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where his father died a few months after Scott’s second birthday.

Early in 1942, Scott’s mother moved to Washington, D.C., but couldn’t afford to send for him, so Scott stayed with his grandmother and other families until 1946 when he moved into two attic rooms in an Alexandria, VA townhouse.

Scott grew up singing and playing guitar and in the mid-1950s he and John Phillips (later of the Mama and Papas) were singing in separate vocal groups but didn’t know each other. They met at one of John’s legendary parties in his apartment on Ramsey Alley in Alexandria, VA. John was sitting on the floor in a corner, singing one of his songs and accompanying himself on the guitar. Scott told him that he liked to sing and play guitar, and Scott sat him down, told him to sing harmony, and that began a long musical friendship.

Scott and John formed a quartet called The Abstracts and modeled after vocal quartets like The Four Freshmen and the Four Preps. On their first trip to New York City, they met an agent who had been in a group called “The Smoothies” which had had a hit in the 1940s called “You’re An Old Smoothie.” The Abstracts became The Smoothies and began to work in traditional nightclubs – clubs with variety shows, dancing girls, and comedians. In 1960, The Smoothies recorded a few pop singles, produced by Milt Gabler. Folk music was now the craze, and soon John and Scott were looking for a banjo player to form a folk trio. They found Dick Weissman, a world-class player, and the three became “The Journeymen.” The trio recorded three albums and seven singles for Capitol Records.

John went on to form The Mamas and the Papas and moved to California. McKenzie declined an offer to join the group, instead deciding to see if he could make it on his own. Two years later, he left New York and signed with Lou Adler’s Ode Records.

John Phillips wrote a remarkable body of songs chronicling his own personal journal and the, on a national scale, the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. One of those songs, which he wrote for Scott McKenzie, was “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair,” On the day Scott recorded the song, some friends picked wildflowers and wove a garland for him, which he wore while he sang. John Phillips co-produced the song and played guitar on the recording. The song was released on May 13, 1967, and became an instant hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard hot 100. It was also a #1 in the UK and several other countries and sold more than seven million copies. John Phillips’ “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” was intended to be Scott’s follow-up song, but contracts prevented him from recording it, and he released “Like An Old Time Movie,” which was a minor hit. Scott McKenzie often said that it was going to be a one-hit wonder, then San Francisco was the hit to have.

In 1970, Scott moved to Joshua Tree, a California desert town near Palm Springs, and he moved to Virginia Beach, VA, where he lived for 10 years. In 1986 original Papas Denny Doherty and John Phillips, with Mackenzie Phillips and Spanky McFarlane, took a new version of the Mamas and the Papas out on the nostalgia circuit. When Denny left the group, Scott joined. In 1988, Scott co-wrote the Beach Boys hit Kokomo with John Phillips, Mike Love, and Terry Melcher. Scott spent much of the 1990s touring with the Mamas and Papas until the group disbanded. Scott retired to Los Angeles and fell ill with Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 2010. He died at home on August 18, 2012.


VAN MCCOY (1940-1979)

Van Allen Clinton McCoy, professionally known as Van McCoy, was a musician, record producer, arranger, orchestra leader, and prolific songwriter best known for his disco hit “The Hustle,” which scored #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Soul Singles charts in the summer of 1975. The song sold more than a million copies and a Grammy for best pop instrumental performance in 1976.

He has more than 700 songs to his credit as writer, co-writer, or arranger, and is noted for producing songs for recording artists including Gladys Knight & The Pips, Tom Jones, Chad & Jeremy, Roberta Flack, Jackie Wilson, The Shirelles, The Stylistics, Aretha Franklin, David Ruffin, and Peaches & Herb.

Van McCoy was born in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 1940, and grew up on Columbia Road, NW, the second son of Lillian and Norman McCoy. He went to school at Monroe Elementary, Banneker Jr. High, Dunbar High School, and, as a result of integration, Roosevelt High School. He learned to play piano at a young age and sang in school and church choirs. He started writing songs by the time he was 12 years old and in high school, he and his brother formed a doo-wop group called the Starlighters, which recorded a novelty dance record “The Birdland” in 1956. The Starlighters recorded three singles for End Records.

Van went to Howard University when he was 18, but dropped in order to move to Philadelphia, where he formed his own record company, Rock’n Records, and the next year released his first single called “Mr. DJ.” Scepter Records owner Florence Greenberg hired Van to be a staff writer and A&R; rep. While there, Van wrote his first successful song, “Stop the Music,” which was recorded by The Shirelles in 1962. He wrote for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and worked for April Blackwood Music, which was connected with Columbia Records. Van wrote “Giving Up” for Gladys Knight & The Pips (and later a hit for Donny Hathaway), “The Sweetest Thing This Side of Heaven” for Chris Bartley, “When You’re Young and in Love” for Ruby and the Romantics, “Right on the Tip of My Tongue” for Brenda & the Tabulations, “Baby I’m Yours” for Barbara Lewis, “Getting Mighty Crowded” for Betty Everett, “Abracadabra” for Erma Franklin, “You’re Gonna Make Me Love You” for Sandi Sheldon and “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” for Jackie Wilson, among many other hits.

Van helped Peaches & Herb get started, arranging and co-producing their first hit in 1966, “Let’s Fall in Love.” That same year he recorded a solo LP for Columbia, produced by Mitch Miller, called “Night Time is a Lonely Time.” Van wrote or produced most often for The Presidents; The Choice Four; Faith, Hope & Charity, and David Ruffin. His song “Giving Up” was a 1969 hit for the Ad Libs.

In the early 1970s, Van began an eight-year collaboration with songwriter and producer Charles Kipps, and arranged several hits for The Stylistics as well as releasing his own solo LP on the Buddha label in 1972. The album included a minor hit, “Let Me Down Easy.”

In 1975, Van released the mostly instrumental LP “Disco Baby” for the Avco label, the title song of which was performed by the Stylistics. Unexpectedly, a single called “The Hustle,” also on the album, written about the dance craze of the same name and the last song to be recorded for the album became a huge hit. “The tune went to the top of both the Billboard pop and R&B charts, was #3 in the UK, and won a Grammy. Van never repeated that song’s success, although the singles “Party,” “That’s the Joint” and “Change with the Times” received significant airplay. Van had some other successes with David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Faith, Hope, and Charity. Van died of a heart attack on July 6, 1979, in California.


Content courtesy of Washington Area Music Association.