THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS

The talent was there, the group's arrival on the music scene was explosive, the uniqueness and appeal undeniable, but The Mamas and the Papas burned out very quickly. Built on shaky ground, this undisciplined aggregation always seemed headed for disaster. The unfortunate breakup came after the quirky quartet made an indelible impression during a couple of years filled with more twists and turns than your typical soap opera. One can only guess at the levels that might have been reached had they made a more serious effort.

In the late 1950s, John Phillips (Johnny in those days) was part of a short-lived Alexandria, Virginia vocal harmony group called The Del Ray Locals. Then he joined folk outfit The Abstracts. With Phil Blondheim and Dick Weissman, he was in The Smoothies (a Decca Records act in 1960). Johnny switched back to John and Phil changed his name to Scott McKenzie (some say it came from his supposed resemblance to a Scotty dog and the middle name of John's daughter, future actress Laura Mackenzie Phillips). The three became The Journeymen, signing with Capitol and releasing three albums each a full year apart between 1961 and '63. During this time John met Holly Michelle Gilliam, an 18-year-old California blonde from Long Beach, abruptly divorcing his wife to marry her. The couple moved to New York City; she began modeling while the Journeymen became regulars on the Greenwich Village scene.

Denny Doherty of Halifax, Nova Scotia cut his teeth with folk groups as a teenager: The Hepsters came first, then The Colonials, who later became The Halifax Three, putting out two albums for Epic Records in 1963, largely overlooked in what was an overcrowded folk market at the time. Baltimore-born Ellen Naomi Cohen, meanwhile, was also working her way into folk music circles. She changed her name to Cass Elliot ("Cass" was a high school nickname) and, with Tim Rose and James Hendricks, formed The Big 3; an album was released on the obscure FM label. The Journeymen busted up for good in early '64 but Phillips, not wishing to give up so easily, began singing with wifey Michelle (who had taken voice lessons) and recruited banjo player Marshall Brickman to keep the band going as The New Journeymen. Denny agreed to join as lead singer but the fit wasn't right and they called it quits after a few months (years later Brickman switched gears, making his mark as a writer...he collaborated with Woody Allen on several screenplays and won an Oscar for Annie Hall).

By that time Elliott and Hendricks had moved beyond the Big 3 and hooked up with Doherty and Toronto-born free spirit Zal Yanovsky, calling themselves The Mugwumps; one single appeared that fall on Warner Bros. before they scattered. Yanovsky got in on the formation of The Lovin' Spoonful and started hitting the charts in a big way the following summer. Hendricks, who was married to Cass for several years, kicked around awhile before making his mark writing songs (including a few of Johnny Rivers' late-'60s hits and "Long Lonesome Highway," a 1970 hit for Then Came Bronson TV star Michael Parks).

Suddenly finding themselves with a lot of free time, John, Michelle, Denny and Cass (along with John's five-year-old daughter Mackenzie) headed to the Virgin Islands for a little relaxation and lots of chemical mind expansion. Elliot's main motivation for going along was an obsessive crush she had on Denny, but he wasn't interested in pursuing romance with the plus-sized Cass. For a time they lived in tents on the beach or simply wandered around homeless, writing songs, staying high, eventually running out of money. They headed to Los Angeles with a little cash gained through gambling; after arriving, a chance encounter with Barry McGuire (former singer for The New Christy Minstrels) got them an "in" with his label, Dunhill, which had been started a few months earlier by producer Lou Adler and some business partners. McGuire had just hit number one with the label's first hit, the doom-and-gloom "Eve of Destruction," and they were hired as session singers for a few of his follow-up recordings including "This Precious Time," a late-'65 single that failed to chart.

Adler signed them to the label and the four set about recording their own material. The Mamas and the Papas was chosen as the group's name (taken from then-current slang terms for girlfriends and boyfriends). Phillips composed most of their material including "Go Where You Wanna Go," pressed as the first 45 but quickly pulled from distribution in favor of another song they felt would make a stronger impact ("Go" became an introductory hit for another group, The 5th Dimension, in the spring of '67). "California Dreamin'" had been written by John a few years earlier during a particularly cold New York winter, the lyrics expressing his desire to be in a warmer climate; McGuire recorded the song first for his album This Precious Time, produced by Adler with engineer Bones Howe and a solid group of seasoned session musicians including bassist Joe Osborne, keyboard player Larry Knechtel and drummer Hal Blaine (worthy of mention as they were the backing band on nearly all M&P recordings). The group then dubbed their own vocals (with Denny's lead) onto the same track and it became the "official" first single.

John's California dream entered the charts the first week in January 1966, gradually working its way into the top ten by the beginning of March, peaking at number four that month behind the faster-rising hits "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by S/Sgt. Barry Sadler, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' by Nancy Sinatra and "Listen People" by Herman's Hermits, though it ultimately had a longer chart run than any of them. The Mamas and the Papas became one of the hot success stories of 1966 (second, perhaps, to The Monkees, who arrived amid televised fanfare later in the year). The second single, "Monday, Monday" (written by Phillips but not unanimously embraced by group members), developed much more quickly, reaching number one just a month after its early April release. Debut LP If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, with a baffingly controversial bathtub/toilet cover photo, sold like hotcakes and hit number one on the album charts in May.

Success went to their heads almost immediately. With the seemingly easy money and household-name fame came mansions in Bel Air and Laurel Canyon. Suddenly they were waving "good morning" to movie star neighbors and hobnobbing with rock and roll elite in stark contrast to the nomadic lifestyle of the previous year. Heavy alcohol and drug use frequently got in the way of their art, though the average listener, caught in the spell of those great early hits, likely didn't notice. The partying even interfered with the desire to perform live for their newfound fans, as the foursome made relatively few concert or club appearances during their two-year peak of popularity.

Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Gilliam

Michelle had an affair with Denny while Cass seethed; John's mind was too clouded to immediately catch on to what was happening. It created a rift between the four that never fully mended and helped quicken the band's demise. When John found out, he reacted in the worst possible way by convincing Lou Adler and the Dunhill heads that she must be fired from the group...this just a few months after they had first become popular! Adler's blonde girlfriend, Jill Gibson (who had an appearance similar to Michelle's), was tapped for replacement duties. Jill was experienced as a backup singer for Jan and Dean and had written a few songs for the duo (in addition to being Jan Berry's main squeeze for awhile). During her time with M&P, they scored their third top ten hit, "I Saw Her Again," an uptempo, radio-friendly track (recorded with Michelle) that had been composed by John and Denny a year before on the beach in the Virgin Islands. Jill's voice did make the cut on a few of the songs recorded for the group's second album, The Mamas and the Papas, and she did some touring with them, but fans were suspiciously nonplussed. The whole setup was ill-fated; she left a few months later, towards summer's end.

All is forgiven, Michelle, please come back!...and she did, but it was never quite the same as before. She was involved in later sessions for the second album, released that fall; "Look Through My Window" peaked below the top 20. The next single was a smash: Cass belted out the lyrics of "Words of Love" ('...so soft and tender...won't win a girl's heart anymore!'), arranged with a pseudo-vaudevillian backing in vogue at the time. It landed in the top five in January '67. Cass had become noticeably pregnant, but the father wasn't her estranged husband Hendricks (whom she eventually divorced). She refused to reveal the identity of the real dad; daughter Owen Vanessa Kuegell was born in April.

A '50s tune written by Lowman Pauling and Ralph Bass, "Dedicated to the One I Love," was chosen to be the next single. Originally released in 1958 by The Five Royales, a '59 version by The Shirelles went through the roof after the group rereleased it in early 1961; the Mamas and the Papas dialed back the brashness of the earlier versions with a soft-focus rendition that became their biggest hit in nearly a year, holding at number two for three weeks in March and April of '67 (while fellow L.A.-based group The Turtles reigned with "Happy Together"), fueling sales of the third album, The Mamas and the Papas Deliver. The Grammy Awards rolled around at that time and the group was strongly represented with four nominations, including a win in the Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Group Performance category for "Monday, Monday."

"Creeque Alley" returned them to the top ten (just as "Words of Love" had been remixed, it too differed notably from the album version); John and Michelle's cleverly-written biographical piece about their extended island visit came across as confusing, yet humorous ('...everybody's getting fat except Mama Cass!'), but made more sense to those familiar with the group's back story. After "Dedicated," the quartet remade several of their rhythm and blues favorites including Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" and a toned-down rendition of "Do You Wanna Dance," originally a hit for Bobby Freeman in 1958. They tripped further back with "Glad to Be Unhappy," a Richard Rogers-Lorenz Hart song from 1936, updated '67 style in a minute and 40 seconds flat. Phillips tunes "Twelve Thirty" and "Dancing Bear" rounded out 1967, but the group's really big hits were history. Former cohort Scott McKenzie finally achieved the success he'd sought with two Phillips-penned hits that year, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" and "Like an Old Time Movie."

In 1968 the crazy M&P party ran its course. Cass wanted a solo career and the others were too far gone to hold her back; John had been drinking more heavily than usual, blaming it on his deteriorating marriage, while Michelle, feeling she was little more than decoration, lost the desire to continue with the group. "Dream a Little Dream of Me," a chestnut dating from 1931, appeared on the fourth album, The Papas and the Mamas, with John's spoken introduction to Mama Cass's solo performance in what turned out to be her emancipation. The group had split by the time the album hit the streets; "Dream" was a hit and Cass followed it with a nice run of solo singles the next couple of years, including top 40 hits "It's Getting Better" and "Make Your Own Kind of Music." In June of 1969 she starred in her own ABC-TV variety special, The Mama Cass Television Program. Later in the year she began billing herself as Mama Cass Elliot.

Each of the others attempted solo careers at various times in the '70s, but John was the only one who managed a hit single, "Mississippi," in 1970. He and Michelle finally divorced that year. She turned right around and married actor Dennis Hopper; the tabloids buzzed with the news of the couple's breakup (eight days later!) and subsequent divorce. Dunhill Records pulled rank on the four, insisting they owed the label one more album's worth of material per contractual agreements. People Like Us was produced under strained conditions wherein Phillips did most of the heavy lifting, the others seldom together in the same place; instead, they mostly recorded separate parts, with John overseeing the final production. Released in 1971, the album sold poorly; one single, "Step Out," made a brief chart appearance in early '72.

Mama Cass Elliot emerged as a well-loved star of the early 1970s. She did some acting, appearing as Witch Hazel in the 1970 children's movie Pufnstuf followed by one-shot roles on several TV series. Dozens of appearances on variety specials kept her highly visible during those years. Her personality crackled on several Tonight Show appearances and she was tapped by Johnny Carson himself to fill in as guest host a couple of times. A second variety special, Don't Call Me Mama Anymore, aired on CBS in September 1973 with a guest appearance by Michelle Phillips. It all came to an abrupt end in July 1974 when Cass died of a heart attack, a shocking development that still seems unthinkable.

The other three members of The Mamas and the Papas continued their careers outside the recording studio. Michelle switched to acting, appearing in many films and television episodes, peaking with a late '80s/early '90s run on the prime time soap Knots Landing. In 1981, John Phillips and Denny Dohery began a long series of concerts with a new M&P group that included John's daughter Mackenzie (supplementing her own acting career highlighted by eight years on the CBS sitcom One Day at a Time) and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane (of '60s group Spanky and Our Gang), the most logical singer to fill the gap left by the beloved Mama Cass.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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