The History of the Mamas and the Papas part one
"All the the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey....I'd be safe and warm, if I was in L.A...." It was January of 1963. John Phillips and his wife-to-be, Michelle Gilliam, had just arrived in New York from California. "We were staying in the Earl Hotel off Washington Square," recalls John. "It was Michelle's first time East. She was 18 at the time. One morning we woke up and she said, 'What's going on, what's going on?' And I said, 'It's snowing Michelle.'
"She says, 'SNOWING?' She had never seen snow in her life. Really the California Girl Brian Wilson wrote about.
"So we went for a walk that day, and she had no winter clothes and got chilled to the bone. Along the way we stopped in a church and got warm. We kept thinking about California's bright sun and blue sky...."
Four years later, the song that came out of Michelle's first snow storm launched the Mamas and the Papas on a fast and hard-burning ride to stardom. With its sunny, close-knit harmonies, its easy, folk-rock rhythm, and its promise of greener pastures, "California Dreamin'" was released on Dunhill Records in November, '65 and climbed to the No. 4 slot in early 1966. Almost overnight, songwriters John and Michelle, a honey-toned lead tenor named Denny Doherty, and a free-wheeling, gutsy alto who called herself Cass Elliot had blossomed from down-and-out, sweet-singing hippies to high rolling superstars. As Jay Lasker, one of Dunhill's three principals, would later comment to Forbes magazine, "These four animals walked right in off the street."
"They were such a motley looking group," recalls drummer extraordinare Hal Blaine of his first sessions with them in the summer of '65 at L.A.'s Western studios. Blaine, along with bassist Joe Osborne and keyboardist Larry Knechtel, would eventually play records. "But the minute John started singing 'California Dreamin',' we knew a major hit was in the making."
Like most overnight success stories, the Mamas and the Papas breakthrough had been a long time in coming. John, the group's primary songwriter and musical mastermind, was 31 when "California Dreamin'" took off, and, like Cass and Denny, had long been laboring in the flol-music trenches. His checkered career dates back to a high school street gang in Alexandria, Virginia called the Del Ray Locals. "We sang lamppost harmony--doo wop stuff," he says. "We'd sit around the playground till one or two in the morning harmonizing 'Earth Angel.'" The Del Ray Locals begat the Abstracts, a folk-jazz quartet whose trademark tune in 1959 was "How High the Moon."
"We wore crewcuts, blazers, and little matching outfits," says Phillips. "We worked locally, and we kept driving up to New York and knocking on doors at the Brill Building."
Musically, John modelled the Abstracts on the harmonies of the Four Lads, and the open sound and freely moving parts of the Hi-Lo's, the Four Freshmen, and the Four Aces. "I loved the wide open voicings," he says, "with the sixth of the chord on the bottom. I learned a lot from listening to them. I was also influenced by the Kingston Trio and the Clancy Brothers."
In 1960, the Abstracts became the Smoothies, and lead tenor Phil Blondheim changed his named to Scott McKenzie, after the middle name of Laura Mackenzie Phillips, John's newborn daughter by Susie, whom he had married in 1957. The Smoothies landed a contract with Decca and recorded John's "Softly," a lushly orchestrated ballad that fit right into the current musical climate--Percy Faith's "Theme from 'A Summer Place'" was the No. 1 record of the year. "Softly didn't generate much chart action, but it did land the smoothies on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," where they shared the bill with Conway Twitty.
A year later, Phillips and Scott McKenzie abandoned the Smoothies to form the folk group the Journeymen with Dick Weissman. "Dick was our resident musicologist," says Phillips. "He knew folk music inside out--all the Lomax series, the Southern heritage." With McKenzie's smooth vocals, John's commercial songwriting skills, and Weissman's unparalleled musicianship and knowledge of the folk repertoire, the Journeymen took off. By 1963, they had recorded three albums for Capitol.
Among the earliest dates, in April '61, was Gerde's Folk City, where they were featured alongside Bob Dylan; perhaps their most significant engagement, however, also in '61, was L.A.'s Hungry i, a hot night spot frequented by a 17-year-old part-time model named Michelle Gilliam.
The attraction was strong, immediate, and mutual. Gilliam was young, spirited, and beautiful. Phillips, eight years her senior, was a successful songwriter and part of the San Fransisco elite. Each saw in the other something worth pursuing. Within a year, Philips had divorced Susie to be with Michelle.
The couple came east, where she began modeling in earnest and he became immersed in the Greenwich Village folk scene with the Journeymen. ("California Dreamin'," written during this time, was never performed it that way publicly.) In 1963, the Journeymen were booked on a hootenanny tour along with Glen Yarbrough of the Limelighters and a Canadian group called the Halifax Three, whose lead singer was Denny Doherty. "We were thrown together in a package deal," says Doherty. "We were touring the south. At the same time Cass was in the Big 3 touring the north."
Ultimately, Doherty left the Halifax Three to join with Cass, Zal Yanovsky, and Jim Hendricks to form Cass Elliot and the Big 2. Then they added a drummer and called themselves the Mugwumps, making one album's worth of material for Warner Bros. Records. John Sebastian was one of their sidemen, and he and Yanovsky went on to form the Lovin' Spoonful.
By the spring of '64, McKenzie and Weissman had left the Journeymen. But Phillips wasn't ready to quit the folk scene quite yet. He convinced Michelle, by now his wife, to take voice lessons, joined up with a hot banjo picker named Marshall Brickman, and created the New Journeymen. All he needed was a lead vocalist.
"The Beatles had invaded," recalls Doherty. "The Mugwumps had broken up. Cass and Yanovsky and I were all back in New York, living at the Albert Hotel. No one had a job, the bills needed to be paid, and the management was threatening to throw us out. The phone rings and it's John, saying he remembers me from the hootenanny tour and wants to put together the New Journeymen with Michelle. They had a date at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, so over the weekend, I had to learn 28 songs." The new folk group was a success, playing at the Shoreham as the warmup act for Bill Cosby.
But the folk scene was fading fast, and so was the trio's enthusiasm for it. It was time for a change. Armed with their New Journeymen earnings and an American Express Card, Doherty and the Phillipses headed for the Virgin Islands, complete with dogs and a five-year-old Laura Mackenzie Phillips in tow. Cass eventually followed them, primarily to be with Doherty. ("Cass and I had a very strange relationship," he reports. "She wanted my parts.")
They lived on the beach in pup tents, dropped acid, and sang "California Dreamin'," "Go Where You Wanna Go," and "I Saw Her Again," the last two of which John wrote, he says, in response to Michelle's wandering eye. Gradually, Cass began to sing with them. "At first," says Michelle, "John didn't really want her in the group because she was so independent, and because her voice didn't really blend that well. But the more she sang with us, the more it became apparent that that's where the sound was."
John says he changed his mind about Cass when her voice changed: "She had always been about two tones too low for my arrangements," explains John. "She just couldn't get there. Michelle has a very high voice. Sort of a coloratura. I needed a really strong alto. Cass's sound was perfect but the range was wrong." Then one day, while wandering around a construction site, Cass was hit by a copper pipe. "She was in the hospital for about three days with a concussion," says John. "I don't know if her sinuses cleared or what, but her voice got higher. It was just what we needed."
As the quartet honed its sound, the local authorities became less and less enamored of the free-wheeling antics on the beach. "We finally split when the governor threw us off the island," says Doherty. By that time they were completely broke. "We wound up living with Cass in L.A. in a crash pad with eviction notices posted on the door," says Denny.
In California, they ran into their old friend from the Christy Minstrels, Barry McGuire. He had just had a huge hit with "Eve of Destruction." On hearing the fruits of his friends' musical labors, he offered to introduce them to his producer, Lou Adler. Along with Jay Laster and Bobby Robers, Adler was one of the principals of a small, independent label named Dunhill. Adler found and produced the talent, Roberts managed it, and Lasker promoted and sold it.
It was the summer of '65, and out of the car radio blared the Stones' "Satisfaction," the Beach Boys' "California Girls," and the Beatles "Help." Dunhill was looking for a followup hit to McGuire's and in walked this motley crew with "California Dreamin,'" "Monday Monday," "Go Where You Wanna Go," and "I Saw Her Again."
Adler was thrilled with what he heard. As Doherty recalls it, "Lou said, 'I'll give you whatever you want--just don't go see anybody else.' And John replied with his best line ever: 'Lou, what we want is a steady stream of money from your office to our house. We don't have a house yet, and if we did, we couldn't get there, because we don't have a car.' So we wound up with cash, a house, a car, and 'California Dreamin' in the can."
Initially, Adler signed the group to sing backup vocals on McGuire's new LP, "This Precious Time," one of whose cuts was "California Dreamin.'" "We did the backgrounds and Barry sand lead," recalls John. "And then Lou asked, 'Couldn't Denny sing that song, John?' I said, 'Sure, but it'd have to be an octave higher.' We were a little worried about hurting Barry's feelings, so we both recorded it." The two recordings use exactly the same instrumental and backup-vocal tracks. But Doherty's lead vocal made the song a commercial success.
The single was released in November, 1965. "Just 19 weeks after we recorded it," says Doherty, "it came on the charts at 40 with a bullet. David Crosby [then of the Byrds] stopped me on the street and said, 'Congratulations!' I didn't know what he was talking about."
Continued in book 2
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