I know what you are thinking. What in the world does The Mamas and the Papas have to do with Rock and Roll? They were pretty darn good folk singers but to tie them to Rock and Roll is like trying to tie Mickey Dolenz to The San Diego Zoo because he was a Monkee.
Well, to start with, today is Michelle Phillips birthday. Born in Long Beach, Ca., in 1945, that makes her a… well, that makes her a very experienced singer. Happy birthday, Michelle.
Although the group’s tenure in the music business was brief, their impact was felt for decades, not just for their contributions together but what they did following their highly publicized breakup.
The Mamas and the Papas were John and Michelle Phillips, Dennis Doherty and Cass Elliott. The group was pulled together by John and wife Michelle after moderate success with his first folk outing as a member of the Journeymen (with future collaborator Scott McKenzie). Joining Phillips were Cass Elliott and Dennis Doherty from the short-lived New York rock band, The Mugwumps. (Other Mugwumps member John Sebastion went on to form The Lovin’ Spoonful.)
The Mamas and the Papas toured and recorded between 1965 and 1968. The group’s first single, “Go Where You Wanna Go”, released in 1965 with little success. It was their second single, “California Dreamin“, released later that year and shot up the charts, peaking at number four in the US, (23 in the U.K.) Their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, released early in 1966. It would be their only number one album on the Billboard 200.
The success of the quartet began to unravel in 1966 while recording their second album, The Mamas & the Papas, when it was discovered that Michelle Phillips and Dennis Doherty were engaged in an affair. In the aftermath, Michelle was booted out of the group and quickly replaced by producer Lou Adler’s then girlfriend, Jill Gibson. Many of the vocals had already been laid down by Michelle Phillips, but after a few weeks of rehearsals, Gibson re-recorded all of those.
“Mama Jill” performed on-stage for a few live shows to crowd chants of “Where’s Michelle?” It was not the best situation for the replacement Mama. Near the end of album’s production, Michelle returned and re-re-recorded much of the work that Gibson had performed in her two-month absence. The group and their label, Dunhill Records, paid Jill Gibson an undisclosed sum for her two month period as a Mama.
The group never returned to its former glory. In 1967 as the closing act for the first Monterey Pop Festival, the Mamas/Papas performance garnered terrible reviews. Critics were very harsh when describing the act’s haphazard production as unprofessional. The band then made their final television appearance together where they performed some of their most popular songs, on The Ed Sullivan Show in August 1967.
After her hugely successful, Dream a Little Dream of Me, in 1968, Cass Elliott left the group to pursue a solo career. This decision pretty much closed the curtains on the Mamas and the Papas. However, the quartet did perform and record as a group as late as 1971, only to satisfy contractual recording obligations to their label.
At the pinnacle of her solo career, Cass Elliott died in 1974 of a heart attack at age 32. Michelle Phillips spoke to her by telephone the night before her death and related to the media that Elliott had never been happier. She passed away in her sleep that night. (Trivia – Elliot died in a London flat – No. 12 at 9 Curzon Place, Shepherd Market, Mayfair. Four years later, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon died in the same flat at the same age.)
John Phillips remained active in the music business co-writing songs with Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and former bandmate Scott McKenzie. Phillips suffered bouts of alcoholism and drug addiction in later years, significantly reducing his creative usefulness. McKenzie died in 2001 of congestive heart failure at age 65.
Michelle Phillips went on to have a successful career in television and movies. She is most known for her recurring role of Anne W. Matheson Sumner on Knot’s Landing.
Dennis Doherty did some acting work in later years. He joined a reconstituted Mamas/Papas in 1982 with old friend John Phillips, his daughter McKenzie Phillips, and another folk artist of the past, Elaine Spanky McFarlane. They toured and produced one studio album together. Doherty died on January 19, 2007 at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, from an abdominal aneurysm.
The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. So you see, there is a thread that binds folk music to Rock and Roll. Nobody wove that harmonic thread better than this California quartet.