Few groups represented the sound of California better than The Mamas And The Papas in the mid 1960’s. In fact, it was their first hit “California Dreamin'” that introduced them to the world in early 1966.
The Mamas And The Papas were not really a California group. John Phillips was from South Carolina, Cass Elliot was from Maryland, and Denny Doherty was from Nova Scotia, Canada. The only native Californian…Michelle Phillips.
John Phillips met Michelle Gilliam when she was pursuing a modeling career in San Francisco. Phillips was touring with his folk group, The Journeymen. The couple married in 1962 when Michelle was only 18 (John was 27), and they moved to New York. It was there they met Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot who were in the folk group The Mugwumps. The four eventually formed The Mamas And The Papas (their name based on counter-culture slang sometimes used by couples to refer to each other), and they moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to try to make it in the music business.
They had a friend, Barry McGuire (“The Eve Of Destruction”), who had signed with Dunhill Records, which was co-owned by Lou Adler. The group auditioned and got a multi-album contract. Folk Rock was the big sound of 1965, and the group’s folk background was perfect for a move into electric Folk Rock. Lou Adler was very impressed. He personally produced their albums, and used some of L.A.’s best studio musicians.
The distinctive looking and sounding two-man/two-woman group appropriately named their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears. You can see above that the record company decided to cover up the toilet that was in their album photo by posting a list of their featured songs.
In early 1966, “California Dreamin'” went to #4 on the singles chart.
”All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. I’ve been for a walk on a Winter’s day. I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A. California Dreamin’ on such a Winter’s day.”
Here’s John Phillips’ memory of how the song came about…from a 1995 interview at Paramont Studios:
‘It’s my recollection that we were at the Earle Hotel in New York and Michelle was asleep. I was playing the guitar. We’d been out for a walk that day and she’d just come from California and all she had was California clothing. It snowed overnight, and in the morning she didn’t know what the white stuff coming out of the sky was, because it never snowed in Southern California. So we went for a walk and the song is mostly a narrative of what happened that day, stopped into a church to get her warm, and so on and so on. And so as I was thinking about it later that night, I was playing and singing and I thought “California Dreamin'” was what we were doing that day. So I tried to wake Michelle up to write the lyrics down that I was doing. She said, “Leave me alone. I want to sleep. I want to sleep.” “Wake up. Write this down. You’ll never regret it. I promise you, Michelle.” “Okay.” Then she wrote it down and went back to sleep. (Laughs) And she told me she’s never regretted getting up and writing it down, since she gets half of (the royalties for) the writing of the song.’
Their next single, “Monday Monday”, made it all the way to #1. It’s a really good song, and won a Grammy, but it also benefited from having the ice broken by “California Dreamin’”, and having the group become well known. That’s why artist’s follow-up singles and albums are often bigger than their first. Both of those singles were million sellers.
The third song listed on the cover was a very original arrangement of a Beatles’ song…”I Call Your Name”. Cass had a crush on John Lennon, and you can even hear her whisper his name during the song. One of John Phillips’ specialties was finding new ways to cover songs, so something refreshing was brought to each one. The album also contained their original song “Go Where You Wanna Go”.
The Mamas And The Papas made a huge impact on radio and television. Many of their TV appearances were lip-synced…one, because a lot of TV shows were done that way, and two, because they were a vocal group and not a band that could replicate the instrumental portions of their recordings. Unlike some of today’s artists, they never hid the fact that they were miming to their recordings. They’d do things like play an “air flute” during the break in “California Dreamin'”. For other appearances they did perform live with other musicians, and of course they used a band for concerts.
Besides singing harmony, some lead vocals, and co-writing some songs, Michelle brought the look considered the classic “California Girl”…blonde, blue-eyed, and model pretty. Cass not only had an outstanding voice, her singing style and warm personality resonated with fans. Denny was the major male vocalist around which many of their hits were built, and John was the leader of the group who was a good guitarist, and an outstanding vocal arranger & songwriter.
By August of 1966, The Mamas & The Papas released their second album. It was self-titled, with “&” officially replacing “And” in their name for the rest of their recordings. The album had two big hits. “I Saw Her Again” (#5) which had a little false start in the middle of the song…”I saw her (pause) I saw her again last night”. That was actually a tape operator error that Lou Adler decided was a nice touch, so they polished it and left it in the song. “Words Of Love” with a strong vocal from Cass also went to #5.
Their third album in less than a year was released in February of 1967…The Mamas & The Papas Deliver. “Look Through Any Window” was a modest hit at #24, and had actually been released in 1966. The group’s second biggest hit “Dedicated To The One I Love” was #2 for three weeks, and featured Michelle on the lead vocal. The history of the group was amazingly capsulized in “Creeque Alley” (#5). That’s the name of a boarding house in the Virgin Islands where they were rehearsing prior to signing with Dunhill. The song even manages to name-drop some of their friends like John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, and Barry McGuire. By the way, Creeque was actually pronounced as Creaky in the Virgin Islands, but the song is always called Creek Alley.
Speaking of friends, John Phillips wrote the Summer of Love hit “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” for his friend Scott McKenzie. The Mamas & The Papas also inspired similar groups…like Spanky & Our Gang and The 5th Dimension, whose first hit was a cover of “Go Where You Wanna Go”.
Later in 1967, songs by The Mamas & The Papas failed to climb into the Top 10. Their last three hits were “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)” (#20), “Glad To Be Unhappy” (#26), and in 1968, “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” (#12). That was pretty much their whole career as a group…early 1966 to mid 1968…not much more than two-and-a-half years. They did get back together for one unsuccessful album in 1971.
Michelle went on to an acting career in some major movies and television shows. Denny eventually returned to Canada, doing stage and television acting. John did some solo musical work, and also put together various musicians to tour using The Mamas & The Papas’ name. Cass started a promising solo career. Then after completing a successful two-week engagement at The Palladium in London, she died of a heart attack on July 29th, 1974 at the age of 32.
The Mamas & The Papas career may have been short, but their music has remained popular for decades. There have been more collections of their hits than the number of albums the group ever released. They were inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1998.
Update (Dec. 2020): Their first album is once again available on vinyl.