The History of the Mamas and the Papas
Dunhill released the first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears --The Mamas And the Papas (as they now called themselves) in January of '66, with "California Dreamin'" at the height of its popularity. The kinky album cover with the four of them in the bathtub said it all: This was something completely different. First of all, most groups of the time were either all male or all female. This one not only featured a mixed timbre, but great tunes with unusual voicings and fresh harmonies. Folk-rock with a twist. Life magazine called them "...the most inventive pop musical group and first really new vocal sound since the Beatles." Indeed, in the wake of the British invasion, it was the Mamas and the Papas, along with groups like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, who ultimately brought the focus back to America.
The followup to "Califronia Dreamin" was "Monday, Monday," which, much to the amazement of Michelle and Cass, became the quartet's biggest record ever. "I told John I thought 'Monday, Monday' was so contrived," says Michelle. "I didn't like the lyric. I wasn't crazy about the melody. John loved it. Denny loved it. Lou loved it. Cass and I hated it. When Lou said it would be our next song, the two of us went to him and said, "This is a terrible idea. It will be the end of what was be be a great career for all of us.' Then it raced up the charts and became a No. 1 single." Ultimately it also earned them a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Performance" of 1966.
"Cass was a great influence on her," concurs John, "because Cass was such a natural singer. She had real street smarts when it came to music."
By the summer of '66, Michelle, Cass, John, and Denny were back at Western Studios, working on their second album, The Mamas And The Papas. As on their first, Adler produced and Bones Howe engineered. "No one could have done what Bones did with a four-track machine," says John, "ping-ponging those harmonies back and forth." And once again, Blaine, Knechtel and Osborne provided the album's instrumental backbone (as they did on so many records of the time), topped off by John's ever-present accoustic guitar.
By all accounts, including his own, Phillips was a taskmaster in rehearsal and an "obsessive tinkerer" in the studio. "He could prod you gently or kick you in the ass," says Michelle. "He'd say, 'You've got to hit that note, and I mean it--hit it on the next take.' He made you do things you never thought you were capable of doing. I would never have accomplished the things I did musically without John's encouragement and insistence."
They rehearsed constantly. "I'd write the song and get the group together with one 12-string guitar to work out the feel and harmony parts I wanted," says John. "The test for me was if it sounded great in the lving room with one guitar, once you got into the studio it'd be really hot."
The second album spawned the hit singles, "Words of Love," "I Saw Her Again Last Night," and "Dancing in the Street," which Martha and the Vandellas had popularied three years earlier.
By this time, the cash flow problems of the Greenwich Village folk scene were long gone. John and Michelle purchased the Jeanette MacDonald mansion in Bel Air, Doherty moved into a 14-room palace in Laurel Canyon, and Elliot found her dream hous in Nichols Canyon, right next door to Rudy Vallee.
'It was crazy," says John. "We were overnight millionaires. No one had a chance to grasp the meaning of it. We just rented planes and bought clothes." And partied. The soirees in the Bel Air mansion, attended by the Beach Boys, Tommy Smothers, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and other luminaries, are legend. The Mamas and the Papas were having so much fun at home that, by John's estimate, in the two-and-a-half years the group was together, they played only 30 concerts.
"The tours never worked anyway," he says. "We always lost money. The room service bill would be eight billion dollars, and Cass would invite the entire city of Chicago to breakfast."
Their free-wheeling persona was precisely what appealed to such a diverse record-buying public. The Mamas and the Papas were frequent guests of Ed Sullivan, Shindig, the Hollywood Palace with Arthur Godfrey, and of course American Bandstand. Cass, usually clad in a tent dress and suede boots, was the personality behind the group--the natural, outgoing earth mother who was so easy for an audience to warm to; Michelle was the cool, sexy one ("I may have looked cool," she says today, "but I was just plain terrified"), frequently seen in long, close-fitting garb and rarely cracking a smile; Denny, ever the devilish Irishman, favored Nehru jackets and a perpetual "out there" look; John wore his guitar and a friendly but somewhat awkward demeanor, as if he didn't really mean to be six-foot-four.
It all looked like so much fun. But, inevitably, there were problems. Michelle and Denny had an affair, which took its toll on her marriage to John, on her friendship with Cass, and on Cass's longtime love for Denny. "It got to be impossible for Michelle and me to be on the same side of the street, much less in the same studio," says John. "It was crazy." His solution was to fire her from the group. In the summer of '66, Michelle received a formal letter from Dunhill stating, "your services are no longer required...." She was devastated.
Jill Gibson, Lou Adler's girlfriend and a Michelle lookalike, was brought in for several months as a replacement. Michelle was finally asked back, but thing swere never quite the same again.
The third album, The Mamas And The Papas Deliver, came out in '67 and contained "Creeque Alley," a delightful documentation of the group's history ("John and Michie were getting' kind of itchie just to leave the folk music behind....And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass") and a version of the Shirelles' 1961 hit, "Dedicated To The One I Love," which the Mamas and the Papas had long used as a vocal warmup before their live concerts.
That summer was the Monterey Pop Festival, of which John and Michelle were primary organizeers. Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, and the Jefferson Airplane all performed, as did Scott McKenzie, singing the festival's anthem, "San Fransisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," which John had written for him. That spring, Cass had given birth to her daughter, Owen Vanessa, refusing to divulge the father's name, yet thrilled with her new motherhood role.
Album four, The Paps and the Mamas, was recorded in the Bel Air mansion studio in 1968. Charting singles included "Twelve Thirty," "For the Love of Ivy," "Safe in My Garden," and "Dream a Little Dream of Me," the first single released under Cass' own name and the beginning of her solo career. In retrospect, the number of hits the Mamas and Papas had generated in just under three years was phenomenal. Phillips is clearly one of the most prolific and inventive musical minds of a generation.
In the fall of '68, the Mamas and the Papas sailed to England on the SS France to play London's Royal Albert Hall. But, when Cass was arrested (on what proved to be false charges) while disembarking, they quickly cancelled. After nearly three years, it was all getting to be too much. Michelle, pregnant with daughter Chynna (Phillips of Wilson Phillips), was still smarting from the firing, and she and John fought frequently; Denny had been drifting further and further away; and Cass was itching to pursue her solo act. They decided to call it quits.
Cass went off on her own, ultimately recording albums for Dunhill and RCA Records, and playing the club scene, including Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. A popular TV personality, she hosted The Tonight Show no less than a dozen times, and she had her own television show, Don't Call Me Mama Anymore. ("She always hated being called Mama Cass," says Michelle.)
John and Michelle were finally divorced in 1970, the same year John released his solo LP, John The Wolfking Of L.A., which he calls "an instant collector's item." Michelle went on to pursue her acting career, and in 1977 'released her solo disc, Victim of Romance, which did about as well as John's. Denny's solo effort, Watcha Gonna Do, came out in 1971.
Meanwhile, back in the corporate offices, Dunhill--now owned by ABC--claimed the group still owed them one more recording. So John set about putting together a reunion LP in 1970. "By that time, everyone was so nuts, from LSD, lifestyle, and everything else," he says, "we had all scattered to the four corners of the world. I never had all four of them in the studio at the same time. I worked for almost a year, catching people as they went through town to teach them a part, and then overdubbing it on tape. Cass had her own private nurse who was constantly taking her blood pressure. It was horrible--totally opposite from the way we had always worked so closely in the past." ABC issued People Like Us in 1971. It was their final group effort.
Two years later, Cass died of a heart attack in England. "She had finally come into her own," says Denny. "She was on the verge of having it all, and away it went." The world was stunned by her death. Some of the news media claimed it was drug-related, others that she choked on a ham sandwich. John says it was neither, that between her weight and all the hard living, her heart just simply gave out.
Today, the three Mamas and Papas are each flourishing. Denny is living in Toronto, writing songs and acting in theater; Michelle is in Los Angeles, where her thriving screen career includes playing Ann Mattheson on Knot's Landing. ("I'm the mother from hell," she says with pride.) And John, having quit the drug scene, is living on Long Island and touring with a new incarnation of the Mamas and the Papas that he put together in 1981. Daughter Mackenzie Phillips sings Michelle's parts, Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane sings Cass'; and Scott McKenzie sings lead, having replaced Denny in that role in 1987.
The new Mamas and the Papas tour internationally, singing all the old songs. "It's just amazing," says John, "because people all over the world know every word--even young kids. We just stop singing and put the microphones out there, and they keep right on going." And so does the legacy of one of our generation's most original and kaleidoscopically colorful pop quartets.--Susan Elliot
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