“Kokomo” is a song written by John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, Mike Love, and Terry Melcher and recorded by American rock band the Beach Boys.
Its lyrics describe two lovers taking a trip to a relaxing place on an island off the Florida Keys called Kokomo. It was released as a single on July 18, 1988 by Elektra Records and became a No. 1 Hit in the United States, Japan, and Australia (where it topped for about two months). The single was released to coincide with the release of Roger Donaldson’s film Cocktail, and its subsequent soundtrack.
It was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television in 1988, but lost to Phil Collins’ “Two Hearts” (from the film Buster). “Two Hearts” and Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” from Working Girl jointly beat it for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
Composition and recording
The song was written by John Phillips and Scott McKenzie in Virginia Beach in 1986 and recorded and produced shortly after by Phillips, as a duet between McKenzie and Denny Doherty of the Mamas and the Papas. That version remained unreleased until 2010, when it appeared on a posthumous album of John Phillips’ songs called Many Mamas, Many Papas, most of which were originally-recorded in the 1980s for a reconstituted touring version of the Mamas and the Papas, featuring himself, Doherty, daughter Mackenzie Phillips and Spanky McFarlane of Spanky and Our Gang.
When the Beach Boys were commissioned to produce a theme song for Cocktail, producer Terry Melcher contacted his old friend, Phillips, and asked if he had any songs that might be suitable. “Kokomo” was one of the songs Phillips sent Melcher. Another was “Somewhere Near Japan” (aka “Fairytale Girl”), which would also be recorded by the Beach Boys for their Still Cruisin’ album.
Although Phillips had holidayed in the Caribbean several times on the island of Mustique, which was owned by his friend Colin Tennant, “Kokomo” itself is fictional. There are though several places in the world named Kokomo, including Kokomo, Indiana, Kokomo, Arkansas and Kokomo, Hawaii. The song describes Kokomo as a place “off the Florida Keys.” The name was later used by resorts in Sandals Cay, Jamaica, and Grassy Key, Florida. The song also mentions many island locales: in order of their appearance in the song, Aruba, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahama(s), Key Largo, Montego Bay, Martinique, Montserrat, and Port-au-Prince. Bermuda is the only place mentioned that is not located in or near the Caribbean Sea.
In addition to the Beach Boys’ signature layered-singing style, the song’s instrumentation makes heavy use of steel drums. According to “Kokomo” track sheet information supplied by engineer Keith Wechsler, the steel drums were played by musicians named Vince, Milton, and Mike (but not Mike Love). Wechsler also says that there is a percussionist by the name of Chili who played percussion in the introduction of the song. Van Dyke Parks, who had worked on some of the group’s earlier albums, played accordion, while session veteran Jim Keltner played drums. Other players are Jeff Foskett (acoustic guitar), Rod Clark (bass), Joel Peskin (alto saxophone) and Ry Cooder (electric slide guitar).
On the Beach Boys demo of “Kokomo”, lead vocals were performed by Mike Love and Terry Melcher. The demo harmonies include Terry Melcher, Bruce Johnston, Mike Love, and Jeff Foskett. At Disney Films’ request, the “Kokomo” demo was “upgraded” to a master recording, thus requiring members of the Beach Boys to re-record the demo vocals, except for Mike Love’s lead.
The final recorded and released “Kokomo” background vocals are sung by Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and Al Jardine. Terry Melcher’s and Jeff Foskett’s background vocals (on the demo) were erased and replaced by Carl Wilson’s and Al Jardine’s background vocals. The final released “Kokomo” lead vocals are sung by Mike Love and Carl Wilson. The only active Beach Boys member not involved with the recording was Brian Wilson, who was given short notice of the recording session and unable to attend. He was subsequently included in concert recordings of the song, including a live concert filmed for the television show Full House (episode 028).
Mike Love and Terry Melcher’s major contribution to the song was a re-write of Phillips and McKenzie’s existing chorus and the addition of the “Aruba, Jamaica…” lines. The Beach Boys version of the song also retained the melody of the Phillips and Mackenzie original. All four shared a co-write on the song.
There were previous songs referencing a Kokomo, including “Kokomo Blues” (1928) by Kokomo Arnold and “Kokomo me Baby” (1959) by Mississippi Fred McDowell, but these are believed to be in reference to Kokomo, Indiana.