The Magic Circle

In the midst of the reverberating cacophony of the mid to late 1960s, The Mamas & The Papas' supernal harmonies soothed and satisfied millions. Before they were The Mamas & The Papas, Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty actually toyed with the idea of calling themselves The Magic Circle. Of course as The Mamas & The Papas they stood as the troubadours of a generation and a powerful American answer to the British Invasion. From 1965 until 1968 they garnered over half a dozen top ten hits like "Monday, Monday," "Creeque Alley," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "I Saw Her Again" and "California Dreamin'," while also serving as groundbreakers for the historic 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

To fully appreciate the harmonic convergence that defined The Mamas & The Papas, one must first consider the musically incestuous Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. Cass, John, Michelle and Denny spun in and out of trios, quartets and ensembles while they crossed paths with one another and with other artists who orbited the coffeehouse and college campus circuits.

John Phillips landed in the Village with a group called The Abstracts in 1959. Comprised of four hometown pals from Alexandria, Virginia, they soon had two Decca singles and a new name -- The Smoothies. At 6'4" Phillips was physically and creatively imposing. "John was the leader," former Smoothie Michael Boran recalls. "When we started working together I felt somewhat invincible by association." The quartet wore matching plaid jackets and their polished teen-idol sound led to a choreographed 1960 American Bandstand appearance. Phillips once commented: "I was always after that Four Freshman type of harmony."

Following their first single, John abandoned the pop sound to compose in the day's burgeoning folk style. Richard Weissman (future Journeyman member) joined The Smoothies on banjo in "Ride, Ride, Ride," while the wistful "Lonely Boy and Pretty Girl" featured Eric Weissberg ("Dueling Banjos") on the mandolin. When The Smoothies disbanded in December 1960, Phillips formed The Journeymen, a folk trio, which for three years enjoyed more critical acclaim than commerical success.

Meanwhile, north of the border in 1961, a sonorous tenor named Denny Doherty was singing with a folk trio in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A dockyard worker's son, Irish-Canadian Denny was jaunty, devilishly handsome and extraordinarily gifted of voice. "My father had been at me to get a trade. But the life I chose was to become a gypsy as it were."

Denny's group, The Colonials, won prominence through their weekly TV show and proceeded first to Montreal in 1961 and then to Toronto in 1962. The next year, a New York audition yielded three singles and two albums for Columbia's Epic Records, along with a name change to The Halifax Three.

"We were doing folk songs more as performers, not as folkies trying to promote roots music. We weren't trying to educate, we were trying to entertain," Doherty says. Of "The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along with Mitch," which spoofed the popular bandleader, he adds, "It was a way of giving Mitch Miller a nod, since he was president of Columbia. I remember he came to the sessions and gave it his blessings."

The group traveled with The Journeymen on the Hootenanny USA tour in Fall 1963, and Doherty became friends with John Phillips and his wife, Michelle. Afterwards, The Halifax Three went to California to hit it big, but they didn't, and the group disbanded by 1964.

Baltimore-born Cass Elliot had splashed onto the New York scene in 1961 after stealing the show in a summer stock production of The Boy Friend. She auditioned for Broadway roles and in 1962 sang occasionally with The Ofays of Faith, a Chicago women's folk-gospel trio. Later that year, Elliot returned to Washington D.C. where she connected with banjo-player Tim Rose who had accompanied The Smoothies two years earlier.

Eager to try their hand in folk music, Rose and Elliot trekked westward and banded with Chicago folk singer John Brown as The Triumvirate. "I took some money and bought a Volkswagen and we went to Chicago and we formed a group," Elliot recounted. "We spent a horrible, miserable, starving winter. Putting it together. Singing. Learning songs. Tweny-five below zero." In February 1963, they hit the road for a gig in Omaha where singer James Hendricks, a Nebraska schoolteacher, replaced Brown. Later that year, Elliot secretly wed Hendricks to help him avoid the draft.

The three met producer Roy Silver in Washington D.C. Dumbfounded at Elliot's size, Silver nonetheless instantly took to the group, named them The Big 3 and sent them to New York. In the summer of 1963, swift success at The Bitter End in the Village spawned singles, two albums, numerous television appearances and Ballantine Beer commercial jingles!

Their musical director Bob Bowers remembers "Rider" and "I May Be Right" (penned by The Journeymen's Dick Weissman): "These people had a sound that would pin you to the wall!"

But this was not a sound The Big 3 would hold long. Like many of their contemporaries, by May 1964 they fell apart as the British Invasion eclipsed folk music. The never before released "Tom Dooley" reveals the striking transformation of a familiar folk song by Cass Elliot and fellow folkies. Jerry Yester (Modern Folk Quartet, The Lovin' Spoonful) recalls the session: "It's a really good example of how folk music was evolving into folk rock and of people in folk wanting to get into this new thing that was happening now that The Beatles had killed folk music."

Enter The Mugwumps, America's first folk-rock band whose move into electrified rock and roll blazed a new trail. Cass and Jim had linked with their Canadian friends Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky. Doherty says, "Now picture this group: Zalman Yanovsky, free lance Jew; me from Halifax, the weird Irishman playing bass; this 300 pound Cass; we've got Art Stokes, black kid on drums; Jim Hendricks on guitar; John Sebastian sometimes sitting on a stool playing, and we called ourselves The Mugwumps! We went electric a year before Dylan. Everybody went, 'What!? Get out of here!'"

Jerry Yester remembers rehearsals in the spring 1964: "They all stayed in this one room in the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village. It was nuts being around them. It was like 'Mad Tea Pary.' Lots of noise; Cass baking weird and wonderful smelling illegal bakedd goods; Zally with no shirt, running around the place joking, playing pranks."

From July to November, The Mugwumps performed at The Shadows in Washington where The Post noted they were "attempting a new sound." Aiming at the Beatlesque, they recorded their electric rock and roll version of The Coasters' "Searchin'." The Beatles also recorded the tune in an audition for Decca in 1962. To say that The Mugwumps were in synch with the British Invasion understates their ingenuity.

Subsequent sessions generated a handful of stylistically progressive tracks. "Actually a demonstration tape," remarked Cass about the recordings with the early fusion of hers and Doherty's voices in all their contrapuntal greatness. She also lamented that the group "was just too much before its time." By late Fall 1964 The Mugwumps found themselves in New York again, disintegrating. Still, the seed of the folk rock sound had germinated.

At the same time in Greenwich Village, John Phillips was engineering a new musical entity, which included his wife Michelle. A beautiful blonde California girl, Michelle was now a singer, with the help of John and a Sausalito vocal coach.

When The New Journeymen planned for a Christmastime engagement in Washington they asked Doherty to join them. As Cass said, "The Mugwumps were hungy. We cleaned Denny up and sent him over to John. He got the job and supported us."

Along with Doherty's mellifluous leads, The New Journeymen showcased Michelle's dulcet voice. She remembered, "All of a sudden my seemingly very light soprano had a place in the group, with Denny's tenor and John's baritone." The New Journeymen's 1965 version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" coincided with The Byrds' dynamic rendition. Amidst the intricacies of Phillips' harmonic arrangements, these rare demo recordings present a first-time glimps of the embryonic Mamas & Papas sound, sans electricity and the powerhouse of Cass Elliot's voice.

Cass busied herself with solo jazz gigs in Washington in early 1965, but kept in touch with her buddy Denny. En Route to the Caribbean, he and the Phillipses saw her in D.C. and she soon followed them.

That summer at Creeque Alley in the Virgin Islands, the kaleidoscope of all the circles of the past five years magically converged in "California Dreamin'" and the powerful foursome of The Mamas & The Papas.

--Richard Barton Campbell, 1999

1. creeque alley THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS (single version)
(John Phillips & Michelle G. Phillips) Dunhill single 4083; Pop #5 1967 - Produced by Lou Adler
2. ride, ride, ride THE SMOOTHIES
(John Phillips) Decca single 31159; 1960 - Orchestra & Chorus Directed by Jack Pleis
3. lonely boy and pretty girl THE SMOOTHIES
(John Phillips) Decca single 31159(b); 1960 - Orchestra & Chorus Directed by Jack Pleis
4. oh mary don't you weep THE HALIFAX THREE
(Arranged & adapted by Richard Byrne) from the album
The Halifax Three, Epic 26038; 1963 - Produced by Bob Morgan
5. rider THE BIG 3
(Sonny Terry) FM single 9004; 1963 - From the album The Bigh Three, FM 307; 1963
Produced by Alan Douglas & Pete Kameron
6. the man who wouldn't sing along with mitch THE HALIFAX THREE
(Fred Hertz & Charles Green) Epic single 9572; 1963 - From the album
San Fransisco Bay Blues, Epic 24060; 1963 - Produced by Bob Morgan
7. come along THE BIG THREE
(Paul Campbell & Tim Rose) From the album The Big Three FM 307; 1963
Produced by Alan Douglas & Pete Kameron
8. i may be right THE BIG THREE
(Richard Weissman) From the album The Big Three Live At The Recording Studio, FM 311; 1964
Produced by Roy Silver
(Tim Rose) Previously unreleased recording from 1964 - Produced by Erik Jacobsen
10. bound for higher ground THE NEW JOURNEYMEN
(Traditional) Previously unreleased 1965 demo recording
(Traditional) Previously unreleased recording from 1964 - Produced by Erik Jacobsen
12. searchin' THE MUGWUMPS
(Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller) Warner Bros, single 7018; 1967 (Recorded 1964) - From the album
The Mugwumps -- An Historic Recording, Warner Bros. 1697; 1967 - Produced by Roy Silver & Bob Cavallo
13. mr. tambourine man THE NEW JOURNEYMEN
(Bob Dylan) Previously unreleased 1965 demo recording
14. i'll remember tonight THE MUGWUMPS
(Christopher Andrews & Freddy Poser) Warner Bros, single 5471; 1964 - From the album
The Mugwumps -- An Historic Recording, Warner Bros. 1697; 1967 - Produced by Roy Silver & Bob Cavallo
15. the last thing on my mind THE NEW JOURNEYMEN
(Thomas Paxton) Previously unreleased 1965 demo recording
16. california dreamin' THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS
(John Phillips & Michelle Phillips) Dunhill single 4020; Pop #4 1966 - Produced by Lou Adler

Collection Produced by Cary E. Mansfield, Paul Surratt, Richard Campbell and Gregory Rice

John Phillip, Scott McKenzie,
Michael Boran
and William Cleary

Denny Dohery, Pat La Croix and Richard Byrne

Cass Elliot, Tim Rose and Jim Hendricks

Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty,
Zal Yanovsky
and Jim Hendricks

John Phillips, Michelle Phillips,
Denny Doherty
and Marshall Brickman

John Phillips, Michelle Phillips,
Denny Doherty
and Cass Elliot

Tracks: 1, 2, 3, 16:Courtesy of MICA Records Inc.under liscense from Universal Music Special Markets, Inc.
4, 6:Under license from Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. a divion of Sony Music, a group of Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.
5, 7, 8:Produced under license from Rhino Entertainment Co., by arrangement with Warner Special Products
9, 11:Courtesy of Trans/Tone Productions, Inc.
10, 13, 15:Courtesy of Paul Surratt
12, 14:Produced under license from Warner Bros, Records, Inc.

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