Scott McKenzie

TrackSingle / Album
No, No, No, No, NoEpic 5-10124 / The Voice Of San Francisco
San Francisco ...Ode ZS7-103 / The Voice Of San Francisco
What's The DifferenceOde ZS7-103 / The Voice Of San Francisco
Like An Old Time MovieOde ZS7-105 / The Voice Of San Francisco
It's Not Time NowThe Voice Of San Francisco
Don't Make PromisesThe Voice Of San Francisco
Twelve-ThirtyThe Voice Of San Francisco
RoomsThe Voice Of San Francisco
1969 (Enemies And Friends)Stained Glass Morning
Stained Glass MorningStained Glass Morning

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Scott McKenzie photo

 

SCOTT McKENZIE: ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #5
or
THE MAN WE FORGOT

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared. One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.

 

The critics never really liked him. And that single had a lot to do with it. San Francisco in late Spring, 1967 was a hotbed of serious rock revolution, very much the sort of thing that serious young rock writers liked to write serious articles about. This upstart from Los Angeles (via New York and quite a few other places) had a single out requesting all and sundry to wear flowers in their hair if they were going to San Fran. And the great unwashed out there were actually buying this single. In their droves.

It was pop, not rock, the latter being the format/style/genre which was revered by the writers who associated themselves with the burgeoning underground culture. The fact that it was written and produced by John Phillips who did get respect from said critics, got ignored. As did the twin facts that the melody line was one of those to-die-for things, and that McKenzie had one heck of a voice. The song is often referred to as a hippie anthem, (a statement that also very likely gets up the proverbial noses of the critics), and, reportedly, Phillips had written it about the Monterey Pop Festival for which he was one of the organisers.

You must know it, but here’s San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) anyway:

It hit #4 in the US and #1 in the UK and much of Europe. Reportedly, it has sold seven million copies worldwide.

His follow-up single, Like An Old Time Movie, reached #24 in the US and #50 in the UK (all chart info from Wiki). No other singles from Scott, and there weren’t many of them, reached even the bottom end of the Hot 100.

To quote from the AllMusic biography: “Scott McKenzie was the perfect example of a one hit wonder, although his talent and voice made him worthy of (and ultimately did earn him) somewhat more.”

 

THE STORY

He was born Philip Wallach Blondheim in Jacksonville, Florida in 1939 but was raised in Virginia. It was there, in the mid fifties, that he met and befriended John Phillips. The pair started singing together, initially in the Singing Strings and then the Abstracts who became the Smoothies.

The Smoothies photo

The Smoothies (l to r): Bill Cleary, Mike Boran, John Phillips, Scott McKenzie

They specialised in tight harmonies and began to incorporate traditional music in their act, attempting to emulate the popular end of the folk boom of the late fifties – think Kingston Trio who hit big in 1958 with Tom Dooley.

In ’61 Phillips and Blondheim/McKenzie – see Footnotes – put an advert in the Village Voice for a banjo/guitar player and, via the ad, recruited one who was also a singer and songwriter. He was called Dick Weissman (known in the group as The Professor).

The Journeymen based themselves in New York which was where much of the folk action was, and were talented (or lucky) enough to land a contract with Capitol Records. Over the next three years they released three albums and a number of singles, all of which were well reviewed but none of which made significant sales. Perhaps that’s where the bad luck came in because the trio continue to be well regarded for the high standard of their singing, their instrumental capabilities plus their song writing abilities – all three contributed in this last area.

A couple of examples of the Journeymen’s output are relevant. Both of them feature McKenzie on lead vocal in addition to those agreeably warm harmonies. Firstly, 500 Miles, a song usually credited to Hedy West but John Phillips had added his name as co-writer on this version.

Secondly, a later single by the group, Don’t Turn Around, which was written by Phillips with John Stewart, one time Kingston Trio member and respectable singer/songwriter in his own right.

The Journeymen broke up in late ’63. In part this was because interest in folk pop (as we’d now describe their music) was on the wane, and with it, any inclination from Capitol Records in keeping them on their books. In addition, McKenzie was showing signs of mental disorder resulting in paranoia and stage fright which was making performance difficult.

After the group’s break up, McKenzie and Weissman went solo while John Phillips moved to California and formed The Mamas & The Papas.

Capitol retained Scott, possibly reckoning that he was the one from the Journeymen trio most likely to reward them with a hit. His first record, the ballad Look In Your Eyes (written by Brit, Mike Hurst) was unremarkable in most respects but the production did allow that voice to shine through:

That performance, plus the loping flip All I Want Is You, suggested that Scott was set on an easy listening pop route rather than anything more challenging (or of interest to the rock or folk cognoscenti).

His second single was something else altogether. A dramatic reinvention of the Webb Pierce 1953 country hit There Stands The Glass, it’s one that remains a curio in the McKenzie oeuvre. Having heard I don’t know how many country singers sing this song, I still find it difficult to relate to this version.

The flipside, Wipe The Tears (From Your Eyes), is notable for being the first song written by Scott to appear on one of his solo records. For me this is the best of the four sides so far and one that was a pointer to the later records. Pitched somewhere between easy listening and soft rock, it was the sort of thing we’d start getting used to hearing from West Coast bands like the Association and the Turtles. It’s had minimal views on YouTube so few people would seem to have come across it.

Single #3 appeared on Epic Records. No, No, No, No, No, a Michel Polnareff song, was John Phillips produced and it showed. Multi-tracked acoustic guitars followed by banks of swirling strings. This was L.A. pop of the mid sixties as typified by The Mamas & The Papas. Hardly a surprise given the producer but it was effective. Phillips himself was vocally present in the backing (but almost unheard) and the Wrecking Crew provided instrumental support.

Which brings us to the hit record and its fascinating flip. What’s The Difference (or What’s The Difference Chapter I as it was subsequently called) was the sort of song and performance we would have labelled singer/songwriter back then. No strings, no backing chorus, not even a small group, just fingerpicked guitar and Scott, plus lyrics that were a little more complicated than those on the A-side. A song about going away, making your own life whether you’d be missed or otherwise. A rambling man song but there were hints that there could be more to it than that. Chapters II and III which appeared on the flip sides of the two following discs developed those hints into something more.

A friendly uploader has very conveniently put all three Chapters into one clip:

The immediate follow-up to San Francisco was another John Phillips effort, Like An Old Time Movie. A relationship song and, at a superficial level, a record that could have come from one of various other singer/songwriters around at that time. Sure it had another of those lush arrangements but few singer/songwriters relied on just fingerpicked guitars in 1967. The melody line was agreeably complex and the production deployed light and shade very effectively along with tantalising touches of baroque. A record that I find more satisfying than San Francisco but very unfortunately the buying public just didn’t see it that way.

Every time I see you
It’s just because you’re blue
You don’t really need me
The way that I need you

Round about this time the first Scott McKenzie album, The Voice Of Scott McKenzie, came out. Like the later singles, it sunk leaving very little trace. It’s usually stated that that was because the release was several months after the hit single i.e. that it missed the boat. Personally, I think that in part it was to do with the difficulty in labelling Scott’s music. Pop buyers weren’t yet fully on board with the newish trend to buy albums, and regular album buyers who would buy, say, a Dylan or a Tom Paxton, didn’t buy because they assumed the album was pop through and through. The packaging didn’t help either. The rear sleeve had an image of Scott in pretty boy mode all in white. What little information there was, and that wasn’t a lot more than the track listing and the production credits (John Phillips and Lou Adler), was tucked away in a corner in black writing on a dark background.

In terms of sales, Wiki tells me that it got no further than #127 in the Billboard 200 and they don’t bother to devote a feature to it.

I bought it a year or two later. I’m not sure whether it was secondhand but I recall it being a bargain. I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s the sort of record that gets called a forgotten gem but I doubt whether many people were aware of it in the first place. You could call it a beginner’s guide to singer/songwriter-land. Apart from the singles, it contained two Tim Hardin covers, one from Donovan, one from John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, and two “new” John Phillips’ numbers – and by “new” I merely mean in the context of McKenzie himself. Though I should add that both the Phillips numbers appeared on this album prior to release from the M’s and the P’s. The only shame was there was nothing new from Scott himself, but maybe he wasn’t writing much at the time. The overall standard was high and several of those covers matched or even surpassed the originals.

It might be timely to talk a little about Scott’s voice. Strip all those songs and arrangements away and you still have something to marvel at. Elsewhere I’ve used the term “phonebook voice” as in singing a phonebook and still managing to make it sound good. Think Solomon Burke or Scott Walker. McKenzie didn’t sound like either of those gentlemen but he had similar impact with but a fragment of melody and few lyrics. It all seemed so effortless. Smooth and velvet are adjectives I’ve seen used but underneath there was often a current of understated emotion that could sometimes surface.

Back to the album. My next pair of clips illustrate the approach that Phillips & Adler have taken on many of the songs. It’s Not Time Now is on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s second album, Daydream. It’s an excellent performance which should have seen single release. In the hands of McKenzie, Phillips and Adler it becomes almost a new song. A relatively understated number has turned into what I’m tempted to term a dramatic ballad though still very much at the quieter extreme of such beasts. Those words make the transformation sound pretty horrible but take a listen, first to the Spoonful:

The bouncy delivery is at odds with the lyrics which speak of anguish and despair. Arguably, the match between content and delivery is much closer on the McKenzie version, though Scott still manages not to raise his voice too much.

Both the Tim Hardin covers – Reason To Believe and Don’t Make Promises – are well performed with fuller arrangements than the originals. I’ve selected the second although both are very, very good.

The two John Phillips numbers, Twelve-Thirty and Rooms, could be viewed as dry runs for Mamas & Papas recordings – they turned up subsequently from the group. In both instances the later recordings were more brash but that’s relative. This was still soft rock, if rock at all. I’d draw the reader’s attention to the McKenzie version of Rooms, a much more sensitive and personal interpretation. Indeed there’s something of a chalk and cheese thing between the two records which is almost screaming out for video clips. First, the far better known M’s and P’s – note the fuzz guitar in the break:

Secondly, Scott:

In my humble opinion, the best track in the set.

He would only record one more album, Stained Glass Morning, and two singles, the second of which contained two tracks from the album. Or, that’s what I thought but I was wrong – keep reading.

And it’s here I should announce that I come to both Stained Glass Morning and the Holy Man single, entirely fresh. Either I’d forgotten them (and my memory’s not actually that bad), or, much more likely, I was totally unaware of them at the time. Taking the single first, it was undoubtedly a comment on the Maharishi/Beatles affair plus similar cases. It was good but for me, somewhat lost its way. My impression is that Phillips who wrote the song, was aiming for another anthem-like single a la San Francisco but didn’t quite get there.

1970’s Stained Glass Morning was produced by David Anderle rather than the Phillips/Adler pairing. And this time, all the songs were written by McKenzie. The album is sometimes referred to as country rock but that’s slightly deceptive. While it does have a cowboy pastoral mood there’s little explicitly country about it apart from some of the backing. Ry Cooder was part of the team but closer inspection reveals he was only present on a couple of tracks. Barry ‘Eve Of Destruction’ McGuire’s harmonica playing also formed part of the support.

It’s a slow grower of an album from which different tracks emerge and catch the attention span over multiple listens. I’m still at a relatively early stage but the two I’ve selected to fill the last couple of slots in my ten are 1969 (Enemies And Friends) and the title track. Both are melodically very simple in structure unlike some of Scott’s compositions which take unexpected scenic detours en route to resolution. They’re also both extremely simplistic in terms of arrangement featuring little more than an acoustic guitar, in the second case playing no more than quiet chordal strums. Lyrically, the first had Scott musing philosophically but he hoped at the end she’d be his. Stained Glass Morning is one of those monumental quiet songs, the sort of thing Mickey Newbury could deliver and not too many others. A man is being buried, in a far off piece of land, with a flag draped across his coffin. Maybe Vietnam, maybe not.

Through a stained glass morning
They’re digging in the green grass again

Scott took to the limelight about as well as he took to being on stage with the Journeymen i.e. not well at all. Consequently his records largely missed out on the personal appearances that usually go along with hit records. And, after Stained Glass Morning, he disappeared from the recording scene, moving first to Joshua Tree and then Virginia Beach, VA. In the late eighties he joined John Phillips in a reformed Mamas and Papas, taking the place of Denny Doherty. It was also in this time frame that he, along with others, including Phillips, wrote Kokomo which became a late hit for the Beach Boys.

In 2009, he recorded a song by Denny Doherty, Gone To Sea Again. This was to be his last recording.

He died in August, 2012 in L.A. He had been suffering from the rare Guillain–Barré syndrome.

Out of all his songs I keep going back to What’s The Difference, which in some respects was the story of Scott McKenzie. When he reconciled with John Phillips after sixteen years of not speaking – these words come directly from Scott (from the website I refer to in the footnotes) – John wrote a new last verse for What’s The Difference. This was it:

Can’t you see the two of us on the horizon
Our silhouettes so black against the sun
Hand in hand, no more compromisin’
Doin’ things that no one’s ever done

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Some evidence backing up my opening statement is called for. In the generally reliable “Rolling Stone Record Guide”, published in 1980, the second McKenzie album, Stained Glass Morning, was given a one star rating. In the also otherwise good, ”Rolling Stone Record Review”, from 1971, (or at least that’s the one I have), McKenzie doesn’t even get an entry in the index. He doesn’t get into Dave Marsh’s “1001 Singles” either. Greil Marcus has referred to that song as “one of the sappiest songs of all time” (quote from Real Life To Ten blog dated Sep 23rd, 2002). In their reviews AllMusic use phrases like “bit too bland” and “lethargic tempos and mellow-to-the-point-of-sleepiness aura”. Though to be fair to AllMusic they are broadly positive in their biographic piece.

2. Scott’s first group The Singing Strings also had Tim Rose as a member for a short period.

3. At an after show party with the Smoothies in Ontario, Philip Blondheim complained that no one could understand his name. People started to come up with suggestions. Scottie came up, because someone saw a likeness to a Scottie dog. It got shortened to Scott. He took the name McKenzie from the one John Phillips had given his daughter.

4. The Journeymen’s first job (John Phillips’ term) was at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village. Also on the bill were Dylan and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Apparently McKenzie tuned Hopkins’ guitar for him, or so he claims. (Source: 1995 interview with Phillips & McKenzie on the Scott McKenzie website set up by Gary Hartman in 1997)

5. Hedy West was a folk singer and song writer from Georgia, who came from a family of folk singers and performers. Her father was a poet and coal mine labour organiser. Her most famous song, 500 Miles, was created from fragments that she had heard from her uncle. Apart from the Journeymen’s version, the song got covered many times by artists ranging from Bobby Bare (who had a hit single) and Rosanne Cash, to Elvis and Nick Cave.

6. The song No, No, No, No, No was an anglicisation of a French hit from Michel Polnareff. The original was entitled La Poupée Qui Fait Non. This is it. In his arrangement, Phillips stuck with the acoustic intro:

7. In reference to my comment that the album The Voice Of Scott McKenzie sunk with very little trace, there is an interesting website which lists Best Albums Of (Year). For 1967 it has that album at #351. (It has Sgt Pepper at #1 and The VU And Nico at #2.)

8. The Everly Brothers produced a cover of Stained Glass Morning, the song not the album, and it’s that very rare thing, a Don & Phil track I don’t like that much. Maybe I’d have thought differently about it if I hadn’t heard the original first. On it the drama is externalised and the boys’ voices are pushed well beyond their normal level. I’ll leave it to the reader to dig this one out.

9. In March 2005, PBS broadcast a concert called “My Generation – the 60’s Experience” within which Scott sang Francisco. At the end of the program Scott sang a song that was unannounced. The song was We’ve Been Asking Questions, one of the last to be written by John Phillips before he died. We’re lucky in that it’s been captured by YouTube.

10. For a starter, the best way of purchasing Scott’s material is via the anthology Stained Glass Reflections: The Anthology 1960-1970 released in 2001. It contains the entire Stained Glass Morning, most of the singles, several tracks from The Voice Of Scott McKenzie and, as a bonus, a few Journeymen tracks. My only regret is that it doesn’t have the two John Phillips penned numbers from the first album. Those tracks are on Spotify however, which has the whole of the first and second albums.

 

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds
#2 James Ray
#3 Richie Barrett
#4 Mickey & Sylvia
#5 Scott McKenzie
#6 Blue
#7 Chris Kenner
#8 Dawn Penn
#9 Shep and the Limelites
#10 The Poni-Tails
#11 The La’s
#12 Thomas Wayne
#13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford

 

Scott McKenzie (1939-2012)

 

The Scott McKenzie website

Scott McKenzie Discography

Scott McKenzie biography (iTunes)

The Papa John Phillips website (including discography)

The Journeymen Discography

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on One Hit Wonders in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.

TopperPost #607

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 7, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this fascinating piece. He had such a fabulous voice. At times it reminded me of Jim Croce as did his general folk/pop/easy listening sound. Checked to see if there had been any connection between them on Google and turned out that they share a birthday.

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 9, 2017

      Thanks Andrew. Scott was woefully under appreciated but he was far from alone.

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