DON'T CALL ME MAMA ANYMORE
"When you're Extraordinary, you've got to do extraordinary things..." The song comes from the Broadway smash "Pippin," and Earl Brown's special lyrics for Cass tell it like she is...EXTRAORDINARY. Before taping her hit CBS Special, "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore," Cass took the songs to the audiences at Chicago's famed Mister Kelly's to see if everything worked. And to say that everything did work is an understatement. As she belted song after song, the crowd saw the emergence of one of today's best female singers and performers. The fact that Cass is a dynamite lady singer is evidenced by all the Gold Records already hanging in the bathroom of her Hollywood Hills home, but this album establishes Cass Elliot as a major star in not only voice...but personality. It's a fact that "you have to have been there" to sing the blues the way Cass does her Torch Medley. She's been a lot of good places, too...and you can hear it in I Like What I Like. As you listen to this album, you'll find that Cass Elliot is a very nice way to fill a room.
"When you're on stage, you gotta do it. People pay to see you, and they deserve to be entertained and you should go out there and really give it your best shot. And that's quite a challenge. You have a new audience for every show. Even though you do the same thing all the time, you gotta keep it fresh for yourself and you gotta keep it good and interesting and something you want to do. I'm anxious to have a really terrific act. Whatever it takes it takes."
--Cass Elliot, Spring 1973
Cass Elliot first put these words into action at age 7 with "Don't Fence Me In" at the Baltimore Hippodrome. Later, her role in a summer stock production of The Boyfriend hastened her decision to drop out of high school two weeks before graduation in 1960, and head to New York. Competing in the bigtime juxtaposed a range of experiences: from vying with Barbra Streisand for a part in Broadway's I Can Get It For You Wholesale, to working as a coat check girl at The Showplace, to travelling in a company of The Music Man.
With little success in this sphere, however, Elliot found herself performing as one-third of the Greenwich Village folk trio, The Big 3 and then as part of The Mugwumps, an anachonistic folk-rock group. But in 1965 it happened, when she skyrocketed as "Mama Cass," the vocal powerhouse of the sixties supergroup:The Mamas and The Papas. When this successful role came to an end in 1968, Elliot resumed her solo musical career; this time, with more success.
Cass swiftly became a welcome fixture on television and had her own prime-time special in 1969. She recorded seven albums and fourteen singles from 1968-1973 and collaborated with Dave Mason, Stephen Stills and The Electric Flag. She also appeared in the 1970 children's mod-fantasy film Pufnstuf and recorded film themes. One of these, the theme from the 1973 Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey film L'Amour, debuts in this recording.
In 1971 Elliot linked with RCA Records, and she put out two albums within eight months the following year. Managed by Allan Carr and working with a coterie of Las Vegas Connoisseurs in 1973, she created a first-rate club act with which she enjoyed a successful run at The Flamingo in Las Vegas, and at a series of tony nightclubs.
Thus she landed at the exclusive Mister Kelly's. It was at this intimate and premiere Chicago venue, during the summer of 1973, that she recorded what would become her last album: Don't Call Me Mama Anymore. Cass had mixed emotions about recording the show. She mused, unwittingly, a few weeks before her appearances, "This whole thing about doing a live album I have been against. I think there's nothing more BORING than a live album unless you're somebody REALLY special. I think if you're really important - if you're Marlene Dietrich and you make one performance a year then you record it. No matter what she sings, no matter whether she falls you, you record it because you just don't know when she's going to do another one." The poignant paradox of Cass' statement would be realized just a year later at her untimely death.
Don't Call Me Mama Anymore was a command performance in every sense. As Cass tried to shed her hippie nickname from The Mamas and The Papas' heyday, she simultaneously proved herself a chanteuse and entertainer extraordinaire. "She had such fans in Chicago," says Chet Dowling, her friend and comedic writer. "They just worshipped her. I thought we'd never get her offstage," he adds, recalling that theater greats Lunt and Fontanne attended the Mister Kelly's shows as did Carol Channing.
All who worked with Cass agree that she was utterly hilarious. With winsome and self-effacing humor, early in the act she explained her recent knee injury. She had fallen and hurt her knee enough to require surgery and the use of a cane. This also delayed taping of the television special that sprung from the show, in which she cracked, "I would say the world's in terrible shape, but I'm afraid the world would say, 'Look who's talking!'"
"Every joke worked with her, and she laughed with every joke," Dowling points out. "And she never made fun of anyone but herself." Remembering the fun of the sessions he adds, "She had a good wit because she had perfect diction and all great singers do have great diction. So she would never bury a punchline."
He also recalls the humor surrounding her dress for Mister Kelly's. "Allan Carr wanted to surprise her and he arranged to have a duplicate made of the dress that you see on the album cover, that pink one with the sequins. But it was made in denim and instead of sequins they were studs. A metal stud on top of denim! You'd have thought there was a 40-pound metal box of ammunition in the dressing room! When she opened it, she said, 'I can't wear this.' She put the thing on and she said, 'I'm going to have to have crutches, nevermind the cane! I can't move in this damn thing.' So we arranged for her to get it on just offstage, so she just stepped onstage with it on. But she never wore that dress again and she absolutely refused to wear it for the television special."
Onstage, Elliot did what she did best: she entertained. She reveled in full-fledged entertainment. She could sing, she could act, she could dance, she could captivate. Even to merely listen to her rap in the midst of these musical performances is beguiling. Adroitly, with genuine humor and conviction, Cass drew together her show business biography -- talking about her folk music days in Chicago, The Mamas and The Papas, and her solo-singer-life.
And where she was headed in 1973.
To read the show's song titles sequentially is like a free verse poetic summary of where Cass Elliot was at this moment in 1973: Extraordinary...Don't Call Me Mama Anymore...I Think A Lot About You...My Love...I'm Coming To the Best Part of My Life...
Vegas veteran, Earl Brown, remembers composing the title tune: "She just sort of implied to me she was sick and tired of people calling her 'Mama' and I thought that would be an interesting idea for a song. It came out well and she was crazy about it. People still called her 'Mama' though." And former bandmate, Michelle Phillips confirms that Elliot's desire to dis the 'Mama' name predated 1973. "Up until the very last minute in her 1968 show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas she thought the marquee was going to read 'Cass Elliot'. And she said she did not want the marquee to ever read 'Mama Cass'. She wanted to drop the Mama thing so badly. She hated it."
While crusading against her sobriquet and battling the age-old demon of stage fright, she demonstrated immense talent and determination to forge ahead. "Though the hefty singer confessed to being nervous," a Los Angeles Times review of her act assessed, "she gave a performance that indicated big things in her nightclub future." At the time of the shows Cass remarked, "When I got ready to put the act together for Vegas, I was very nervous about it and my director told me 'We're going to put together an act for you that you are going to want to go out on stage and do every night.' And he was right, I did want to go out and do it. I found out how fun it was: to be back in a one to one situation with an audience that you can entertain, you can really feel their responses, and you know when you're going over and you know when you're not. I enjoy it!"
You could see the insecurities and fears, especially because this time she was out on her own," echoes Tony Mordente, who produced and choreographed her 1973 TV special. "But even though she had those insecurities, when she walked out of those big elephant doors at CBS and in front of that orchestra, the people went crazy and she did an incredible job." And John Bettis agrees, "It was kind of scary and it was pretty lonely out there. She was really a fascinating person that way. She was perhaps the wildest combination of insecurity and confiedence I ever met. She had massive amounts of both. I don't think she ever imagined herself as a solo artist...but I think she was born to be one."
Bettis, who was riding a successful high in his partnership with The Carpenters, captured Elliot's confidence in I'm Coming To The Best Part of My Life which he wrote especially for her. "Cass and I talked pretty directly about what she wanted," he reminisces in describing the song's conception. "The title was mine, but the intent and the content of the song - Cass might as well have co-authored it. It was certainly from inside of her that the song came." Of her performace of it at Mister Kelly's he adds, "To be that close to that kind of energy, you just really knew you were a part of something very special: the beginning of something. That's what was so tragic about what happened."
Indeed. When she sang I'm Coming To The Best Part of My Life as her next intended single on The Tonight Show in May 1974, Johnny Carson remarked, "That's got all the earmarks of being a hit and a standard!" But aside from Cass' hopes that the song would confirm her solo-star status, listening to the song today fills one with ironic pathos.