The Summer of Love and That Song About ‘San Francisco’

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You know who really hated “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”? The city officials of San Francisco.

It was apparent by the early months of 1967 that their city was going to be receiving an influx of young people once school let out and the weather warmed up—some higher-ups were predicting that thousands of them might besiege the city, jobless, homeless, many of them taking drugs and congregating on the streets without a care in the world.

The migration had already begun in 1965-66, the city’s population swelling with seekers of love and life (many of them runaways escaping boring lives in boring places), drawn to the vibrant, freewheeling culture and physical beauty of the city. In particular they were swarming to the Haight-Ashbury district, adjacent to Golden Gate Park. They’d spend their days lying about in that park and their evenings at one of the city’s newly sprouted rock music ballrooms, where they’d listen and dance to new bands with odd names like Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead.

For the youth, San Francisco was a mecca, a place one could go to be around similarly inclined outcasts from around the country. Living was cheap and no one minded sleeping on the floor of a crash pad in one of the Haight’s trippy Victorian houses with a dozen new friends, toking on joints (or maybe popping a tab of Owsley acid) and passing bottles of cheap wine while the record player blasted out newly released albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced. In January they held a Human Be-In to celebrate the very existence of their community.

That spring, on May 13, 1967, to be exact, a new single, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” was released by a previously unknown singer named Scott McKenzie that invited everyone to come to the city by the Bay and join the fun.  Perhaps too ironically, it was written and recorded by people from Los Angeles.

The song was composed by John Phillips, the nominal leader and chief songwriter of the Mamas and the Papas. The vocalist, McKenzie—originally Philip Wallach Blondheim III, born January 10, 1939 in Jacksonville, Fla.—was already 28 years old and had known Phillips since the mid-’50s. They’d sung together in a doo-wop group and then the folk group the Journeymen. When that group called it a day and Phillips formed the Mamas and the Papas, McKenzie decided to try his luck as a solo artist.

He left New York for L.A. and was signed by producer Lou Adler to his Ode Records. “San Francisco” was written with McKenzie in mind and co-produced by Adler and Phillips. Phillips orchestrated the session, playing the acoustic guitar himself and bringing in bassist Joe Osborn and drummer Hal Blaine, who had played on most of the Mamas and the Papas’ recordings, plus Gary L. Coleman on bells and chimes, to give the song a happy, springtime feel.

The 7-inch single of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” from Scott McKenzie

“San Francisco,” as its parenthetical subtitle suggested, implored listeners to make their way west, flowers strategically placed:

“For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair”

The song is credited with having added to the mass of youths arriving in the city for what became known as the Summer of Love. Whether San Francisco was equipped to handle such an invasion and its attendant problems was a bone of contention at the time. Many residents, including hippies who’d already been enjoying the city’s freedoms, resented the newcomers as well. Some of the local bands openly scoffed at the song, calling it naïve and hokey, not to mention intrusive on their scene.

An ad for the single appeared in the May 20, 1967, issue of Record World

Nonetheless, “San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and its message of communality and gentle vibes struck a chord with a segment of the nation (and abroad) for which the phrase “flower power” was a new rallying cry. Many came to San Francisco to have a look—including both George Harrison and Paul McCartney—and some came to stay. Most hung out for a little while and then moved on, either back home or, perhaps, to rural communes or other communities built around like-minded folks. Millions who never got near the Golden Gate Bridge simply liked the easy-flowing song  enough to make it a quick success.

Scott McKenzie performed his hit—which reached #4 nationally on the Billboard chart and, not insignificantly, #1 in the U.K., where London was undergoing a similar renaissance—at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by the Mamas and the Papas’ musicians.

Watch Scott McKenzie sing “San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967

He never came close to repeating his success—his only other top 40 hit was “Like an Old Time Movie” later that year—but he’d made his impact on the emerging youth culture.

Scott McKenzie in his later years

McKenzie did, however, experience great success vicariously one more time. A song he composed, “Kokomo,” became the last #1 hit for the Beach Boys in 1988, a couple of years after McKenzie himself joined with Phillips in a reconstituted lineup of the Mamas and the Papas.

Scott McKenzie died on August 18, 2012, at age 73.

Listen to the studio version of the song

Related: What were the other top hits of 1967?

Jeff Tamarkin

9 Comments so far

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  1. Nick
    #1 Nick 13 May, 2017, 13:37

    I had read where John Phillips wrote the song specifically to promote the Monterey Pop Festival, but obviously couldn’t put that in the song, so he picked San Francisco.
    One of the great all time songs.

    Reply this comment
  2. steve
    #2 steve 14 May, 2017, 01:12

    all the squares liked the song.People like us that listened to hendrix thought it was hokey.A better song about the city was Eric Burdon’s San Francisco Nights..Even if it wasnt true his conviction gave me chills .It also nade me feel so longing.Not really for SF but for a place to call home. “I wasnt born there,perhaps i’ll die there.Theres no place left to go” Even today it makes me feel so forlorn .

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin Author 14 May, 2017, 11:28

      “San Franciscan Nights” was great too but man, some of those lyrics: “Its an American dream, includes Indians too.” “Walls move, minds do too.” “Old cop, young cop, feel alright, on a warm San Franciscan night.” Earth to Eric!

      Reply this comment
  3. TyStick
    #3 TyStick 14 May, 2021, 11:38

    Great song. It definitely represents the time and era.

    Reply this comment
  4. Kevasaurus
    #4 Kevasaurus 14 May, 2021, 22:35

    We who lived there at the time hated it with a passion,

    Reply this comment
    • mick
      mick 19 August, 2021, 12:34

      That’s because you did not know but your city and you were beautiful.

      Reply this comment
  5. MickeyFab
    #5 MickeyFab 15 May, 2022, 08:15

    What a great song! Even though I wasn’t around for the Summer of Love, I have always loved this song. Yes, I could see how city officials would hate this song lol! Scott, that creep John Phillips (I acknowledge him for being a good musician/ songwriter) and all the great musicians playing on it, created a classic, well done!

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