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The Mamas & the Papas

The Mamas & the Papas

One of the most important pop groups of the '60s, the Mamas & the Papas' sound was built around radiant vocal harmonies and a solid electric folk foundation, and a major part of their appeal lay in the easygoing southern California lifestyle the foursome seemingly embodied and endorsed. Their first two singles, "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin'," were gentle pop statements that sounded like the opening salvos in a cultural revolution, while also being calm and sweet enough to appeal to those who never thought about wearing a flower in their hair. The group's moment in the spotlight was brief, only four albums were issued during their three-year prime, but their sound was influential and lasting enough that it became emblematic of the era.

The group's founder and de facto leader, John Phillips, got his start musically in the early '60s as a member of folk music 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. When the Journeymen folded, 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 of California.

Meanwhile, working in a different realm of the musical spectrum was a Baltimore-born singer named Cassandra Elliot, who was successful as part of New York's off-Broadway theater scene, and had made some noise in touring productions of The Music Man. She 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 worked completely. 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 beginning to fit together in the closing days of 1964.

Meanwhile, Cass Elliot was paying her bills by singing jazz in Washington, D.C. 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. After getting to know each other musically and personally, they took a trip to the Caribbean (as immortalized later by the song "Creeque Alley") and hit on a sound they felt good about.

The group headed to California late in 1965 and 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 -- they played "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. Produced by Adler, played by the cream of the Los Angeles session crews, and with luminous vocals arranged by John Phillips, it reached the top of the album charts and was one of the top-selling albums in the country for months. Though the group was at the pinnacle of the music world, behind the scenes there were troubles brewing, and a variety of causes led to Michelle Phillips leaving the band for a few months. She was replaced by singer/songwriter Jill Gibson during sessions for the group's second album. It's unclear if she appeared on 1966's self-titled album; by the time it was released, Phillips was back in the band. Recorded with a tightly knit group of musicians who included guitarist Eric Hord and the established Los Angeles session players Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Joe Osborne on bass, and Hal Blaine on drums, the album was again produced by Adler with songs written and arranged by John Phillips. It spawned two hits "I Saw Her Again and "Words of Love," and peaked at number four on the Billboard album chart. The same crew worked on the band's third album, Deliver, which was released in 1967 and spawned three hit singles: "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Creeque Alley," and "Look Through My Window."

That same year, 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 of all the rock festivals of the '60s, 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. The Mamas & the Papas closed out the festival with an exuberant set, although it was overshadowed by some of the more dynamic performances of the weekend.

By the time the band were ready to record their fourth album, 1969's The Papas & the Mamas, John and Michelle Phillips had built a studio of their own. The band worked there on a more downcast set of songs that reflected the end of the psychedelic era. While it did have a hit single -- "Twelve-Thirty" -- and reached the top 20, it marked the end of the band's era as hitmakers and influencers. The second single from the album, a rollicking version of the old musical number "Dream a Little Dream of Me," was issued under Cass Elliot's name instead of the band's. By the end of the year, the Mamas & the Papas had run out of steam and the group went their separate ways.

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 made her a natural, whether recording solo or in tandem with Dave Mason. Her first venture into performing solo, in Las Vegas, wasn't a success, 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, and Denny Doherty undertook a solo career 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 acting that kept her busy. She distinguished 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 group never officially reunited, though John Phillips occasionally organized groups (most notably in 1982 with Doherty, while his actress/singer daughter MacKenzie and Elaine McFarlane, formerly of Spanky & Our Gang, filled the women's spots) to play the oldies circuit and recycle the vintage repertory.

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 culminating in 2001 with the release of All the Leaves Are Brown, a compilation of their complete '60s studio recordings, and their hit singles can be heard over the airwaves, in movies and on TV shows on a regular basis. Their music continued to be reissued as well, with Real Gone releasing Complete Singles: 50th Anniversary Collection in 2016 and Sundazed putting out the band's second album with its original mono mix in 2023. ~ Bruce Eder & Tim Sendra

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