The leading California-based vocal group of the ’60s, the Mamas & the Papas epitomized the ethos of the mid- to late-’60s pop culture: live free, play free, and love free. Their music, built around radiant harmonies and a solid electric folk foundation, was gorgeous on its own terms, but a major part of its appeal lay in the easygoing southern California lifestyle it endorsed. The group’s success was as extraordinary as it was brief, and onlookers may well wonder what went wrong with a performing group that seemed to have the world at its feet for all of two years. The irony behind the Mamas & the Papas’ story is that the same forces that made it possible for them to create extraordinary music together also made it impossible for them to stay together for more than a short time.
The group’s founder and de facto leader, John Phillips, born in 1935, was actually quite a bit older than most of the figures who emerged as rock stars during the middle and late 1960s. He was more of Elvis Presley’s generation, the product of a chaotic home life with a difficult childhood and adolescence, and seemed to be headed for life as a low-level delinquent until he was scared straight, and then had been headed for the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD. In the background, however, was music, the guitar, and the sounds of Elvis Presley, the Platters, Teresa Brewer, and everyone else charting records in the mid-’50s. He eventually entered music professionally, while his first marriage produced two children (one of them future actress MacKenzie Phillips). Phillips’ first music forays moved from pop to soft jazz and finally into folk music, through groups such as the Smoothies and the Journeymen. The latter group, a trio with Dick Weissman and Scott McKenzie, was one of the most promising small ensembles of the early-’60s folk music boom, but it never connected with the public despite being signed to Capitol Records — in fairness, the label already had the Kingston Trio, and Phillips’ group was perhaps just a little behind the curve of where public taste and radio programming were heading.
Ultimately, Phillips’ first marriage ended, as did the Journeymen, but his attempts at musical success continued. Phillips formed the New Journeymen with future screenwriter Marshall Brickman and a young model and singer named Michelle Gilliam; they didn’t succeed any better, but Phillips and Gilliam married and they also started to write songs. One that they composed jointly during this period was a catchy tune with some potential that expressed an idealized vision.
Meanwhile, working in a different realm of the musical spectrum was a Baltimore-born singer named Cassandra Elliot, who had become a big fish in a small pond — though Cass Elliot would have been the first to say that she was a pretty big fish in any pond — as part of New York’s off-Broadway theater scene, and had made some noise in touring productions of The Music Man. She’s moved into folk music in partnership with Tim Rose — himself an ex-associate of the Smoothies. They worked as two-thirds of a trio called the Triumverate, whose third spot was subsequently filled by Nebraska-born folksinger James Hendricks. This group eventually became the Big 3 and hit it big at New York’s Bitter End, and from there went on to a brief flurry of recording activity that yielded two LPs, a handful of singles, and a brace of television commercials.
Eventually, the Big 3 evolved into the Mugwumps, whose ranks included Elliot, Hendricks, Zal Yanovsky, John Sebastian, and Denny Doherty, a veteran of the Colonials in the early ’60s, who later rechristened themselves the Halifax Three — Doherty and Elliot, who were pretty impressive on their own, made a dazzling pair of voices together. The Mugwumps seemed to be on the edge of a new sound, mixing electric instruments played with ever more emphasis on folk-based material — this was concurrent with the West Coast activities of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby in the Byrds — but could never quite put together a sound that sold, even to the record labels, much less the public. They were foundering when Phillips decided to reactivate his trio as the New Journeymen and, with Brickman gone, recruited Doherty to sing some shows down in Washington, D.C. All of the pieces were almost all together in the closing days of 1964.
Meanwhile, Cass Elliot was paying her bills by singing jazz, in Washington, D.C., no less. The New Journeymen might have gone it alone, except that Doherty brought his fellow members to see her perform. The quartet fell into place despite some resistance from John Phillips over Elliot’s sheer size as well as her strong personality and (supposedly) her voice. Following a few ups and downs in personalities, a trip to the Caribbean (as immortalized later by the song “Creeque Alley”), an accident that suddenly had Elliot hitting what Phillips said were the right notes, and some acid use and drug experimentation along the way, they all headed west in search of success.
The group headed to California late in 1965 and was turned down by ex-Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber, whose group the We Five — with a vaguely similar sound to Phillips and company — was scoring big with its version of Sylvia Fricker’s “You Were on My Mind.” At the suggestion of Barry McGuire, late of the New Christy Minstrels and an old friend of Elliot’s, who was just coming off of his biggest hit, “Eve of Destruction” on Dunhill Records, the quartet auditioned for Lou Adler, the head of the label — their audition consisted of “California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” and many of the other songs that ended up comprising their debut album. Adler signed them on the spot and their debut single, “California Dreamin’,” was out by the start of 1966 and shooting up the charts, with their album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears coming up behind it.
That album was one of the finest examples of what later became known as “sunshine pop,” and it’s still one of the best harmony vocal showcases in 1960s music. In addition to the two hit singles, “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday,” listeners could luxuriate in the radiant splendors of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “Got a Feeling,” and eight more unabashed gems, and they reciprocated by lofting it to the number one spot on the charts and keeping it among the top-selling albums in the country for months. Sadly, this would also mark the Mamas & the Papas’ high watermark as an album act; they would never again release any long-player quite as consistent in terms of quality and inventiveness.
Even before it was recorded, the unity of the group and its sound, and the foursome’s reasons for working as group (which had been cultivated for a year) were jeopardized by the overlapping romantic attractions between the members — John and Michelle Phillips were married, but that didn’t stop Doherty, who’d already been the object of Elliot’s affections, from pairing off with Michelle Phillips and, in the process, engendering stress and distrust all around. Stresses also arose as Michelle Phillips became involved for a time with Gene Clark, the principal composer, co-founder, and lead singer with the Byrds — worse yet, she ended up being accused of disloyalty to the group for her public displays of attraction to Clark and was finally, at one point, fired. There was an attempt to replace her with Jill Gibson during the recording of their self-titled second album during the summer of 1966, and to this day the actual personnel on various songs from that album remains a matter of conjecture.
Ironically, even as their internal lineup was disrupted for a time — Michelle Phillips was back in the ranks by the time of the album’s release — the group’s studio sound was honed to a fine point. The first album had used a brace of top session people, including Glen Campbell and P.F. Sloan on guitars and Bud Shank on flute, but by the spring of 1966 it had solidified around guitarist Eric Hord and the established Los Angeles session players Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Joe Osborne on bass, and Hal Blaine on drums (usually referred to as “the Wrecking Crew”), all being coordinated by John Phillips, engineer Bones Howe, and label chief Lou Adler. Both the band’s tracks and the quartet’s vocals were meticulously worked out separately and merged in the final mix, which could go as deep as 16 tracks, unheard of in pop recording in 1966. The mix of hands didn’t conflict at all — rather, on the Mamas & the Papas’ recordings, they resulted in the illusion of a self-contained group that was playing as well as singing. Their records held up unbelievably well, on the radio or heard at home, and they seemed to move from triumph to triumph, the first two singles giving way to “I Saw Her Again” and “Words of Love,” then “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Creeque Alley,” and “Look Through My Window,” all of which turned up on their third album, Deliver, which was sort of an “in” joke in its title, coinciding with the birth of Cass Elliot’s daughter.
Good as their second and third albums were, however, things were never quite the same for the group after that bout of disunity in the first half of 1966. They’d arrived in Los Angeles in relative innocence, essentially four happy people who were happy just to be singing together, but the intermingling of affections tainted that; although resolving the initial problems had allowed them to keep working together, the motivation soon became a matter of protecting the success they were enjoying — in essence, they were in it for the money, the prestige, and the stardom, as much as and perhaps more than the sheer joy of the singing and of seeing what they could accomplish. This was understandable as, for the first time, they were all making huge amounts of money from their music and were at the center of the musicians’ colony in L.A., as well as nearly as well-known nationally as the Beatles.
Indeed, their appeal was remarkably similar to that of the Liverpool quartet, in that both groups involved four distinct and well-known personalities. John Phillips was the pop guru, the main if not exclusive songwriter and producer and architect of their sound, and had the kind of persona that younger female listeners looked to almost as a fatherly figure (with, admittedly, some incestuous overtones in that context) or, in the context of the times, a romantic professorial figure, a guru who evoked libidinal urges. Denny Doherty was the alluring male voice that made women’s hearts flutter and looked the part of hippie/romantic, playing the same role in the Mamas & the Papas that Gene Clark played vocally and Michael Clark played visually in the original Byrds. Michelle Phillips was the raving beauty, capable of stopping air traffic with just the hint of a smile or a glimmer of libidinal interest in her eyes, who most girls over 13 wanted to be like and most guys over 16, in John Phillips’ own words, “wanted to do.” And Cass Elliot was the hippie Earth Mother with a heart of gold and a glorious voice. Psychically and in terms of image, they were the ready-made core of a hippie commune on any turntable.
The irony was that Phillips was a member of Elvis Presley’s generation and had been in music longer than many of the group’s younger listeners had been alive — ten years earlier, he could’ve been an aspiring member of the Four Freshmen. He’d reinvented himself with a few changes in visual style and his songwriting, and enjoyed his moment in the sun a decade later than his contemporaries such as Presley, Dion, Bobby Darin, et al. And for all of the idealism of their songs, there was a lot of hedonism present — Phillips and Doherty (whose voice and looks drew women like moths to a flame) enjoyed access to every fleshly pleasure there was to be had in late-’60s California; Michelle Phillips was no slouch in that pursuit herself, as well as being one of those fleshly pleasures herself, while Cass Elliot loved the role of Earth Mother and hippie Queen of Hearts, surrounded by admirers. She may have played as powerful an indirect role on American music as John Phillips, helping facilitate the birth of Crosby, Stills & Nash by bringing that trio together under one roof — it was a long way from The Music Man or The Boy Friend, stock and touring performances, or her father’s delicatessen.
In the late spring of 1967, John Phillips’ influence on popular culture reached its zenith when he and Lou Adler, with Michelle Phillips, Al Kooper, and a lot of others assisting, organized the Monterey International Pop Festival. The first and most renowned (musically) of all the rock festivals of the 1960s, the event launched the careers of dozens of mostly San Francisco-based acts nationally and beyond, including those of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Electric Flag, and Phillips’ old friend and Journeymen bandmate Scott McKenzie. In honor of the festival, Phillips had written a song called “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair),” which he gave to McKenzie to record as his solo debut on Adler’s new Ode Records label; precisely why he didn’t give it to his own group, except perhaps for the fact that they weren’t recording or even working at the time, has never been clear, but McKenzie enjoyed a Top Five hit and was suddenly in almost as much demand as the Mamas & the Papas.
By that time, the group even had a rival of sorts, at least in the public perception, in the guise of Spanky & Our Gang, a Chicago-based outfit with folk roots and impeccable vocals built around a powerful female singer, though they were a little wider-ranging in their repertory and placed more emphasis on comedy and a certain theatricality in their presentation. Monterey marked the last great hurrah for Phillips and the Mamas & the Papas as musical influences. The group had closed the festival, Doherty barely arriving in time for the performance, which was later released as the sole official example of their live performances; even the group’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show had involved extensive lip-syncing to existing tracks, and in all honesty their studio sound, because of the way it was built up in two separate, perfect layers that were merged, was very difficult to re-create on stage. At the same time, they’d run through the best part of their repertory on those three LPs and 36 songs, and most of their enthusiasm was spent as well.
John and Michelle Phillips built a studio of their own where their fourth album, The Papas & the Mamas, was recorded, and although there were some new sounds embodied in the work and some hits included (most notably the radiant, sadness-tinged “Twelve-Thirty”), the group’s days were numbered; precisely how numbered they were was revealed by the release of the single “Dream a Little Dream of Me” as a Cass Elliot solo single. The world had also changed in the two and a half years since the group emerged. By 1968, assassinations, the dragging on of the Vietnam War, and the festering political wounds that the war engendered (and the underfunding of Lyndon Johnson’s concurrent “War on Poverty” due to the United States’ ongoing Vietnam involvement) were eating into the fabric of society at every level; things were getting ugly, or at least serious, and John Phillips’ Pied Piper-like presence, beckoning people to California and an idealized quasi-hippie lifestyle, seemed increasingly out of touch with older teenagers and college students’ sympathies. They were magnificent songs, to be sure — “Twelve-Thirty” was a stunning, bittersweet ode to California’s beauty, both natural and in the guise of “young girls coming to the canyon,” though as gorgeous as the group’s version was, Scott McKenzie’s solo rendition offered a poignancy that gives the song some unexpectedly serious overtones, at least in mood, while “Creeque Alley” is one of the funniest and catchiest autobiographical songs of the 1960s. By 1969, the Mamas & the Papas were history, victims of changing times, emotional exhaustion, and an excess of sexual, chemical, and alcoholic pleasures.
Cass Elliot was the first to emerge in her own right, her larger-than-life image lending itself to pop stardom and her musical ability being the most solid on a solo basis — she had a big voice and she’d also acted professionally, which made her a natural, whether recording solo or in tandem with Dave Mason. Her first venture into performing solo, in Las Vegas, was disastrous, but by the early ’70s she was on an even keel, hosting and performing on music-oriented television shows such as The Ray Stevens Show and Get It Together as well as her own specials, and also appearing in the movie H.R. Pufnstuf. John Phillips did a solo album, The Wolf King of L.A., that was well received critically but a commercial disaster, and Denny Doherty’s solo albums disappeared quickly as well. Michelle Phillips concentrated on raising her and John’s daughter, Chynna Phillips, and saw some brief activity as a recording artist, but it was as an actress that she kept the most busy, distinguishing herself dramatically in John Milius’ excellent period film Dillinger (1973).
The group did reunite in the studio early in the decade to record one album, People Like Us, to help fulfill its contract; conversely, there were also lawsuits by John Phillips against his former label over unpaid royalties, which dragged on for years. The most notable event surrounding the group, however, was the tragic death of Cass Elliot on July 29, 1974. From that day forward, the notion of any reunion or revival of the group was little more than the organizing of a “ghost band,” even when John Phillips organized such groups (most notably in 1982 with Doherty, while his actress/singer daughter MacKenzie and Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, formerly of Spanky & Our Gang, filled the women’s spots) to play the oldies circuit and recycle the vintage repertory. Much more interesting was an appearance that Phillips made at New York’s Bitter End in 1983, playing solo — he had spent most of the 1970s coping with various drug problems, and even in his prime had never performed solo, and there he was at a leading performing venue, armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar (and a surprise special guest, Scott McKenzie). This apparent effort at reactivating Phillips’ career was overlooked by most of the press, however, and quickly forgotten.
The group’s appeal, however, has lingered, as reflected in its induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. There have been multiple reissues of their original four LPs, in widely varying quality (especially in America), culminating in 2001 with the release of All the Leaves Are Brown, a compilation of their complete 1960s studio recordings. The death of John Phillips on March 18 of that year would seem to have ended any but the most exploitative reincarnations of the group — in 2003, however, Denny Doherty, who had toured with a version of “the Mamas & the Papas,” premiered the autobiographical stage musical Dream a Little Dream of Me, in which he also starred, in New York. Astonishingly, given their two-and-a-half-year principal history, there have also been four books dealing with the group’s history. Taken together, Papa John by John Phillips (with Jim Jerome) and California Dreamin’: The True Story of the Mamas and the Papas — The Music, the Madness, the Magic by Michelle Phillips (both 1986) form a he-said/she-said account of events, with John Phillips taking the prize for depth between the two of them. More recently, Doug Hall’s The Mamas and the Papas: California Dreamin’ was published, and in 2002 Matthew Greenwald’s Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas and the Papas appeared. Reading any of them is a fascinating, eye-opening, and potentially disillusioning look behind the supposed idealism of the 1960s. ~ Bruce Eder