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Original members included John Phillips (born August 30, 1935, in Parris Island, SC), vocals, guitar; Michelle Phillips (born Holly Michelle Gilliam, April 6, 1944, in Long Beach, CA), vocals; Denny Doherty (born November 29, 1941, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), vocals; Cass Elliott (born Ellen Cohen, on September 19, 1943, in Alexandria, VA; died July 29, 1974, in London, England, apparently of a heart attack), vocals. Later members included Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane (born June 19, 1942, in Peoria, IL), vocals; Mackenzie Phillips, vocals; Scott McKenzie, vocals.

Achieving major success with their laid-back folk-rock songs that epitomized the love generation of the late 1960s, the Mamas and the Papas filled the airwaves with their music. Their first hit, "California Dreamin'," was released in 1966, and within two years, the band produced a dozen chart-toppers. Their unique sound was one of the most successful mergers of folk and rock music to date, and resulted in a series of million-selling singles and gold albums. As was stated in The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, the group "combined strong, memorable melodies with soaring vocal harmonies and distinctive folk-rock sound."

The recordings of the Mamas and the Papas were especially lush, featuring elaborate string arrangements and extensive orchestration. "The elaborate productions (by Lou Adler) on their albums prepared the way for the opulent recording style of such groups as Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s," noted The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock added that the group "had considerable influence on '60s music scene, paving way for more heavyweight protagonists of Aquarian Age."

Critical to the success of the Mamas and the Papas was the significant songwriting talent of John Phillips, who was the chief creative force behind most of the group's big hits. The appeal of the group was also enhanced by the diversity of its four members. John Phillips was rebellious and somewhat philosophical; Denny Doherty was wholesome yet wisecracking; Michelle Philips was quiet; and Cass Elliot was outspoken. Musically, the addition of Elliot to the group was very significant. "With John and Michelle, we had a nice, sweet folk sound," Doherty told Macleans. "But with Cass, we suddenly had power."

Despite their association with the California music scene, the Mamas and the Papas nurtured their musical talents in the folk scene of New York City's Greenwich Village. After attending George Washington University and spending a few months at the United States Naval Academy, John Phillips gravitated to New York City in 1957 and started up a folk-singing group called the Journeymen. This band proved popular in folk circles, releasing three albums on Capitol Records. Holly Michelle Gilliam, who had met Phillips at the Hungry I club in San Francisco, joined the group as a singer after coming to New York in hopes of landing modeling jobs. The relationship between Phillips and Gilliam advanced quickly, and the couple were married in 1962, with Gilliam changing her name to Michelle Phillips.

Canadian Doherty cut his musical teeth in the Halifax Three in Nova Scotia, which made two albums for the Epic label. One of the group members was Zal Yanovsky, who later became part of the Lovin' Spoonful. Doherty and Yanovsky later teamed up with Elliot and her first husband, Jim Hendricks, to form Cass Elliot and the Big Three, which later became known as the Mugwumps and included Art Stokes on drums and future Lovin' Spoonful star John Sebastian on harmonica. After the Mugwumps broke up, Doherty joined John and Michelle Phillips to form the New Journeymen. When they traveled to the Virgin Islands in 1965 to rehearse, Elliot quit her job as a waitress and came on board to perform with them.

Phillips soon decided that the group should base themselves in California as well, and after they moved to Los Angeles Elliot rejoined the group. While there, they were introduced to record producer Lou Adler by their friend Barry McGuire, who previously had sung with the New Christy Minstrels. The New Journeymen got their first break by singing backing vocals on McGuire's second solo album, This Precious Time. Adler saw their potential and signed a record deal with them for his new Dunhill label in 1965. At this time, the group decided to change its name. After rejecting names like the Magic Circle, the group settled on the Mamas and the Papas.

Although the Mamas and the Papas recorded "Go Where You Wanna Go" as their debut single, Adler decided that "California Dreamin'" should be their first exposure to the public. Written by John and Michelle Phillips, "California Dreamin'" was originally recorded by McGuire, but it was turned into a Mamas and the Papas song by erasing McGuire's voice and inserting Doherty's. The song made the group an instant sensation in pop music, becoming somewhat of an anthem for California hippies, and topped out at number four on the U.S. hit parade in 1966. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music stated that the song "effectively established the group as arguably the finest vocal ensemble from their era working in the pop field."

Subsequently, the Mamas and the Papas turned out some dozen hit songs in a two-year period. They made the top of the charts with their second single, "Monday Monday," which was also released in 1966. Ironically, everyone in the group except John Phillips disliked the song, according to Rock Movers & Shakers. The popularity of this tune and "California Dreamin'" helped propel the group's first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, to the top of the U.S. charts in 1966. This album featured many cover songs, and the Mamas and the Papas had success with remakes of "Dancing in the Street" and "Dedicated to the One I Love," the latter of which made it to number two on the U.S. charts.

By the second album, The Mamas and the Papas, John Phillips' songs began to dominate the group's recordings. But by this time the group's exceptional musical harmony contrasted sharply with John and Michelle's strained marriage, which by 1966 was starting to fall apart. In July of 1966, Michelle Phillips was fired from the group and replaced for a short time by Jill Gibson, the girlfriend of Jan Berry from the singing duo Jan and Dean, who incidentally resembled Michelle. When John and Michelle reconciled in August of 1966, Michelle rejoined the group, replacing Gibson.

Generating four Top Ten hits in 1996 alone, the Mamas and the Papas became a major concert draw. Their appearances that year included a gig at New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall. Cass Elliot demonstrated her potential as a solo act in "Words of Love," a number five hit that was largely a showcase for her voice. "Monday Monday" was a big hit in England, and the group traveled there in the winter of 1967 for a series of concerts and television appearances. But after arriving for a concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, Elliot was arrested for allegedly having stolen blankets and keys from the Royal Garden Hotel. Although the charges were dropped after Elliot spent the night in jail, the incident resulted in cancellation of all of the group's appearances as rumors of an impending break-up began spreading.

In the summer of 1967, Phillips helped organize the Monterey Pop Festival. His composition "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)" was sung by Scott McKenzie at the Festival and became a major hit. The Mamas and the Papas' own appearance at the Festival turned out to be the last time all four original members sang live together. In 1968 the other group members fired Michelle Phillips, who then began pursuing acting opportunities. Later that year, the rest of the group broke up to pursue solo careers. "It was a mess," noted Doherty of the group's demise in Macleans, admitting that his own affair with Michelle Phillips may have contributed to the marital breakup. "Nobody could have what they wanted."

John Phillips released a solo album called The Wolf King of L.A., and also co-produced Robert Altman's 1970 film Brewster McCloud with Lou Adler. Legal problems ensued as Dunhill and the group members sued each other for fraudulent withholding of royalties and breach of contract, with the exception of Elliot, who was continuing to record for the label as a solo performer. The band attempted to reunite in 1971 to create the People Like Us album, but the release received negative reviews and perhaps suffered because the individual contributions to the album were taped separately. This failure led the group to break up again.

After this final breakup, members of the Mamas and the Papas went on to pursue other interests. Doherty recorded two solo albums that had little impact, while the creative powers of John Phillips were dissipated by his increasingly severe drug addiction that came close to killing him. Michelle Phillips finally got regular acting work as a cast member of the popular evening soap opera Knots Landing. Elliot had the most success as a solo performer, although it was erratic. Her solo career was cut short while she was in England for a series of concerts in 1974, when she died of an apparent heart attack while choking.

While living off his royalties in the 1970s for hit songs released in the 1960s, John Phillips claimed in his autobiography, Papa John, that his drug use escalated to a $1,000-a-day heroin addiction. He was arrested in 1980 by federal narcotics agents, then sentenced to eight years in prison and a $15,000 fine before the sentence was reduced to 30 days and 250 hours of community service. The arrest turned out to be a wake-up call for Phillips, and he finally stopped using hard drugs. As part of his sentence, Phillips began appearing around the country with his actress daughter Mackenzie to speak out against drug abuse.

In 1982 Doherty reunited with Phillips in a new version of the group that also included Mackenzie Phillips, and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane, who was formerly with Spanky and Our Gang. When Doherty defected after the band started touring full-time, he was replaced by Scott McKenzie. The group continued to perform in its new line up on a fairly steady basis, mostly on the nostalgia circuit. In 1985 they were part of the "Happy Together Tour" across the United States that included the Turtles, Grass Roots, Gary Lewis, the Buckinghams, and others. Three years later they were a featured attraction of "An Evening of California Dreamin'--The Tour," along with Brewer & Shipley, Maria Muldaur, Canned Heat, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. That year John Phillips also scored on the charts as co-writer of the Beach Boys' hit song "Kokomo." Rolling Stone honored the Mamas and the Papas that year by naming "California Dreamin'" one of the "100 Best Songs" of the last 25 years.

Both John and Michelle Phillips wrote autobiographies published in 1986 that offered their perspectives on the group's rise and fall. In recent years John Phillips has had a number of health problems and received a liver transplant in 1992. In the 1990s, Doherty found his niche with young audiences as the harbormaster on the hit PBS children's show Theodore the Tugboat.

by Ed Decker

Mamas and the Papas's Career

Group known as the New Journeymen was formed by John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, and Denny Doherty, 1964; moved to Virgin Islands and was joined by Elliott briefly, 1965; relocated to California and was rejoined by Elliott, 1965; contributed backing vocals to Barry McGuire's second album, This Precious Time, 1965; signed recording contract with Dunhill label of RCA, 1965; released first single, "California Dreamin'," 1966; had number-one hit with "Monday Monday," 1966; fired Michelle Phillips from group and hired Jill Gibson to replace her, 1966; rehired Michelle Phillips in place of Gibson, 1966; performed at Carnegie Hall, 1966; released "Creeque Alley," an autobiographical song about group's history, 1967; canceled series of appearances in England after Elliott was arrested in London for petty theft, 1967; helped organize and performed at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967; fired Michelle Phillips from group again, 1968; disbanded, 1968; reunited to release People Like Us album, 1971; broke up again, 1971; was reformed with John Phillips, Doherty, Mackenzie Phillips (John's daughter), and Elaine McFarlane (formerly of Spanky and Our Gang); added Scott McKenzie to group when Doherty quit; toured as part of "Happy Together Tour" with Turtles, Grass Roots, Gary Lewis, the Buckinghams, and other groups, 1985; participated in "An Evening of California Dreamin'-- The Tour" with Brewer & Shipley, Maria Muldaur, Canned Heat, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, 1988.

Mamas and the Papas's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Contemporary (Rock 'n' Roll) Group Performance ("Monday Monday"), 1966; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1998.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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