The Mamas and the Papas: A Look Behind the Curtains
The folk-rock classic group, The Mamas & the Papas, provided a delightful soundtrack to the decade of the 1960s with their catchy tunes “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.” John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Cass Elliot hit their peak of fame in the ’60s and ultimately helped to define the music scene of American counterculture during that time.
Although they reached major success during their career together, life behind the scenes wasn’t always smooth sailing. The seemingly “groovy” era of free love and the sea of drugs that came with it took a toll on the band, both as a unit and individually. The drama that occurred during the mere five years of working together was enough to last a lifetime. With all the affairs, parties, drug abuse, break-ups and reunions, the drama had lasting effects that are still felt to this day. Even Frank Sinatra used his Mafia connections to send one of the members a special “warning.”
See what really happened with this bizarre yet talented group, whose music is undeniably worth listening to…
First Things First
Do you want to know how this group of four got together? It started with the husband and wife team of John Phillips (who was in the folk group New Journeymen) and Michelle Phillips, and their friend Denny Doherty (from the Mugwumps). Their former bands were active in 1964 and 1965. The last member to join the quartet was Cass Elliot, who was Doherty’s bandmate from the Mugwumps.
The drama started before they even formed their new group. John (who left his first wife to marry Michelle) was ready to sing with tenor Doherty. But he objected when Elliot wanted to sing as well. Elliot had to overcome John’s initial concerns. First, he felt that her voice was too low for his arrangements. But that wasn’t the offensive part…
John Wasn’t a Fan of Cass
John felt that Cass Elliot was simply too overweight and that it would be an obstacle to the band’s success. He also said that her temperament was incompatible with his. According to Rolling Stone, Elliot would only be allowed to sing with the three of them after she followed them around, including their trip to the Virgin Islands.
From the Islands to a Record Deal
The quartet spent early spring to midsummer of 1965 in the Virgin Islands “to rehearse and just put everything together,” according to John Phillips. But apparently, a certain accident left Elliot with a new singing voice. “I had a bad headache for about two weeks and all of a sudden I was singing higher. It’s true.” I guess we’ll just have to take her word for it.
Why the Mamas and the Papas?
John admitted that he was reluctant to abandon his folk music roots. Denny Doherty and guitarist Eric Hord said he hung on to it “like death.” It was Doherty and Elliot who roused his interest in contemporary pop, as it had become “cool” with the Beatles. It was during their rehearsals in the Virgin Islands that they played “electric” for the first time.
Playing electric wasn’t the only “first” they experienced on this trip to the Islands. It was also the first time the group experimented with acid. According to the story, one of the four closed their eyes, pointed to a map, and landed on the Virgin Islands. The quartet, along with 15 others (including five-year-old Mackenzie Phillips) camped on the beach, drank rum from coconuts, and wasted away all their money.
A Fruitful Vacation
During their time together on the island, the still-unofficial-group member Cass Elliot got a waitressing job near their camp just to be able to join the partiers. Apparently, she brought a quart of liquid LSD with her as a gift. No doubt that it won their appreciation. After about a month, the group went to California. Their song “Creeque Alley” was written about this experimental beach vacation.
At first, the new group considered calling itself the Magic Cyrcle before deciding upon the Mamas and the Papas, which by the way, was inspired by the Hells Angels. How? Because the female associates of the notorious motorcycle gang were referred to as “mamas.” From then on, the singing quartet would go down a strange event-filled journey of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll…
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
Their first album was in 1966 titled “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” and it was a huge success. Their group was groundbreaking in those days, as they were one of the first popular groups to have both men and women singing together. But after a while, this co-ed set-up ended opening the door to conflict and romantic resentment.
For one, Cass Elliot was in love with Denny Doherty, who wasn’t interested in her in the same way. Another issue was that Michelle believed in free love, and so her marriage to John didn’t keep her from having an affair with Doherty, among others. But whether or not Cass was even aware of that wasn’t clear… at least not at first.
Behind Her Back
In 2007, Michelle Phillips spoke to Vanity Fair about the sexual tension in the group in those days. “The four of us would sit around, saying, ‘Okay, you’re gonna sing the third,’ and ‘You’re gonna do the bop da bops.’ And there’d be so much sexual energy between Denny and [I] that we’d be playing footsie under the table, and Cass and John didn’t notice it.”
But Michelle and Denny’s relationship eventually came to light. Michelle shared one particularly painful consequence of her affair with Denny: “Cass confronted me and said, ‘I don’t get it. You could have any man you want. Why would you take mine?’” The drama was only in its early stages. According to Denny, ”Cass wanted me, I wanted Michelle, John wanted Michelle, Michelle wanted me, and she wanted her freedom.”
Let the Affairs Begin!
Despite the semi-open marriage to Michelle and his own extra-marital affairs, John objected to his wife being with the group’s tenor. Then again, he was the one that suggested he and Denny transform the experience into the co-written song, “I Saw Her Again,” in which Denny sang the lead. However, it was his wife’s affair with someone outside the group that led him to kick her out of the group.
According to People, after he learned that his wife was seeing Gene Clark of the Byrds, John kicked Michelle out of the group just as they were recording their second album. It was temporary, though. According to Vanity Fair, Michelle fought to get her place back, which was supported by her many fans. But it’s not clear which parts of the second album (“The Mamas and the Papas”) were Michelle singing and which were her temporary replacement’s voice.
Making Time for Other Vices
The group’s tangled web of love, sex, and complicated flings that began even before the quartet started is one of the major reasons they eventually broke up. It was simply too messy for such an arrangement to last. But we’ll get to the group’s demise soon. There’s still some more drama to cover, continuing on with their third and fourth albums, which happened to be very tense.
Acid Trips and Bel-Air Mansions
According to Michelle, the group “never went into the studio without a case of Crown Royal and a bag of pot.” It is really not surprising given the period they were in. But despite the rumors, and their early experimentation with the drug, Michelle made it clear that they “never, ever worked on acid.” They may not have recorded while on an acid trip, but they weren’t afraid of the hallucinogen.
In the peak of their “rich hippie” status, John and Michelle bought a mansion in Bel Air, complete with peacocks. Parties were obviously a regular occurrence, and their most famous guests included movie stars and members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. John and Keith Richards became drinking buddies and even tried to make an album in the late 1970s.
The Monterey International Pop Festival
John and Michelle helped organize the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, which featured Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The Mamas & the Papas were one of the performers, but their time together was reaching its end. Though Michelle and John (who had his own two kids from his previous relationship) were back together long enough to have their daughter Chynna (in 1968), their relationship was still plagued by infidelity.
The two divorced by 1970. By then, things had been tense for a while, and their tumultuous relationship only made things tense for everyone as they recorded “Deliver,” their third album, in 1967. Working on 1968’s “The Papas & the Mamas” wasn’t any smoother.
Mama Cass Wanted Out
In 1968, Cass admitted to Rolling Stone that she just “didn’t just want to be part of a group.” She wanted to be able to do TV and movies. Her desire was to “sort of diversify myself, to extend myself. Within the framework of a group, that freedom is not possible.” Mama Cass proved her capabilities that same year with her first solo hit “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
Her feelings for Denny were still there, though, and remained unrequited. He simply wasn’t interested, even when she proposed marriage. Within a year, by 1969, the group broke up. Even as the Mamas & the Papas were still on top of the charts, Elliot was venturing out alone. She continued to have little luck in the love department.
Making it On Her Own
“It’s easy to find boyfriends,” Cass Elliot once said. “I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.” She was married twice. The first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her fellow band member from the Big 3 and the Mugwumps, but it was an arrangement intended to help him avoid the Vietnam War draft.
The marriage was never consummated and annulled by 1968. In 1967, Cass gave birth to her daughter Owen Elliot-Kugell, but she never publicly stated who the father was. In 1971, Cass married journalist Donald von Wiedenman, the heir to a Bavarian region. However, their marriage ended after a few months. She was never able to find true love, but she had a very wide social circle.
The Unchallenged Queen of the Pop Music Scene
In 1968, Rolling Stone called her “the unchallenged queen of the pop music scene.” Her parties were a “who’s who” of musical talent. She even helped form a major rock band. She got her friends David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash to sing and make music together, thus helping to create Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“Music happens in my house, and that pleases me,” she said. “Joni Mitchell has written many songs sitting in my living room.” Her impressive and envious social status put Mama Cass in a better position to stand up for herself when it came to the Mamas & the Papas, even before they broke up. There were frequent clashes with John over the band’s direction.
“California Dreamin’” was undoubtedly one of the best songs of the 1960s. At one point, the Mamas and the Papas overcame the Beatles and the Monkees to take the top spot on the charts. That was no easy feat. But did you know that the quartet weren’t the first to record the song? John and Michelle wrote the song in 1963 while they were members of New Journeymen.
But two years later, after evolving into the Mamas and the Papas, the married couple gave the tune to Barry McGuire (who sang “Eve of Destruction”). McGuire’s version of the song appeared on his album “This Precious Time.” Then, when the Mamas and the Papas recorded the song, they used the same instrumental backing track, simply erasing McGuire’s vocals
In a 1995 interview with Scott McKenzie, John Phillips recalled the story behind “California Dreamin’.” He said, “We were at the [Hotel} Earle 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.”
He continued to describe how it snowed overnight. In the morning, she didn’t know what the “white stuff coming out of the sky was.” To be fair to Michelle, it never snowed in Southern California. So, they went for a walk. He explained how the song is mostly a narrative of what happened to them that day, “stopped into a church to get her warm, and so on, and so on.”
The Charles Manson Connection
“Cass was unique in the sense that she had some money, she had a lot of friends, and she was not dependent on John,” according to Michelle Phillips. Speaking of her many Hollywood connections, it was her very social status that linked Elliot to the notorious Manson Family murders in 1969. Manson had actually attended at least one of her parties.
John was actually invited to Polanski/Tate home that very night of the murders. Luckily for him, he never came and ultimately survived to tell the tale. But after Tate and the others were killed, Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, thought John was the prime suspect. Apparently, in his motivation to seek revenge, Polanski slept with Michelle. Even after the brief affair, Polanski reportedly threatened John with a kitchen knife.
A Flop of a Reunion
The Mamas and Papas decided to get back together for a reunion album. But 1971’s “People Like Us” was a flop. The album’s only single, “Step Out,” reached No. 81. The album hit No. 84 on the Billboard 200, which made it the group’s only album not to reach the top 20 in America. The single nor the album never made the charts in the UK.
Since their contractual obligations had already been fulfilled, the band’s split was final. The era of the Mamas and the Papas was official over. Elliot found success on with film and TV appearances, and with her solo singles like “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” But the star was moving slowly to her final days…
Mama Cass, Dead at 32
Although Cass Elliot had been overweight for most of her life, she made it seem like she accepted it. But the singer was internally very unhappy and frequently put herself on diets, some of them particularly dangerous. She would starve herself. At one point, she went without food for four days out of the week, and this was for seven months.
She also admitted to losing more than 100 pounds, which landed her in the hospital. After suffering multiple health problems like hepatitis, tonsillitis, and hemorrhaged vocal cords, Cass never regained her health. There was a rumor that she died choking on a ham sandwich, but she passed away from a heart attack at the age of 32 on July 29, 1974.
John Spiraled Down
Like Elliot, John, too began a solo career. His just wasn’t as successful as hers. He became depressed and his drug abuse spiraled out of control. Keith Richards admitted that he introduced John to heroin, saying, “I’ve never seen a guy become a junkie that quick.” His arms were turning black due to substance abuse.
The man allegedly spent around $1 million a year to keep his habit going. In 1980, he checked into a rehabilitation facility with his third wife, Genevieve Waite. The two were later joined by Phillips’s daughter Mackenzie, who needed help with her own bad habits. Denny Doherty also checked in for alcohol addiction. At the time, John was facing charges for drug trafficking, after he traded stolen prescriptions at a pharmacy for cocaine.
The New Mamas and the Papas
The New Mamas and the Papas was John’s idea to “round out the picture of reform,” which came about while he awaited sentencing on narcotics charges in 1980. He invited his kids Jeffrey and Mackenzie, as well as Denny Doherty, to join him in New Jersey, where he was still in rehab. John and Denny were to remain in their original roles, Mackenzie would take Michelle’s part and Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane would cover for Cass.
Little progress was made, but the new quartet began rehearsing and recording demos in the summer of 1981. The reformed group toured the United States. After a hiatus in 1983 and a regrouping in 1985, they were playing up to 280 nights a year. John managed to stay off heroin, but he and his daughter were both addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and pills.
John’s Demise and His Daughter’s Accusations
Their addictions affected their performance, as they were occasionally booed off the stage. By 1987, Doherty quit the band, and by 1991, Mackenzie decided to leave, too. John himself dropped out of the band after undergoing a liver transplant in 1992. The group went through a number of line-up changes until around the year 2000, when they stopped making music. All in all, the New Mamas and the Papas had a total of 13 different members.
While John did find at least some success in his solo days, co-writing “Kokomo” for the Beach Boys, the drugs just took over his life. He lost his life to heart failure on March 18, 2001. Eight years after his death, his eldest daughter, Mackenzie, wrote a memoir called “High on Arrival,” in which she described her long-term sexual relationship with her own father. John left behind five children: Jeffrey, Mackenzie, Chynna, Tamerlane, and Bijou.
Denny Doherty Final Days
Like John, Denny was a heavy drinker for years, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But at least in Denny’s case, he managed to quit for good by the early 1980s. His solo career declined after his appearance of “Whatcha Gonna Do?” in 1971. By 1977, he returned to his birthplace of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. There, he played Shakespeare at the Neptune Theater.
His stage presence led to television work, including the variety program called Denny’s Sho*, which only ran for one season in 1978. Doherty then hosted and voiced some parts in the kids’ program, Theodore Tugboat. In 1996, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He ultimately died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm on January 19, 2007. He left behind his three children, Jessica, Emberly and John.
Michelle Phillips Turned to Acting
Michelle Phillips also went out on her own and made a solo album called “Victim of Romance” in 1977. It made little impact, though, and she decided to focus on acting instead. She had more success as an actress, with film credits including The Last Movie (1971), Dillinger (1973), Valentino (1977), Bloodline (1979), The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980), American Anthem (1986), Let It Ride (1989) and Joshua Tree (1993).
She was also on TV in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hotel, Knots Landing, and Beverly Hills, 90210. In 1986, she published a memoir, “California Dreamin’,” which happened to be the same year that John Phillips released his. According to one reviewer, reading both of their books was “like reading the transcripts in a divorce trial.” Michelle is now in her mid-70’s and the sole survivor of the original quartet.
Frank Sinatra Did What?
Yes, Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, got himself involved with the group. It was really John Phillips who earned his attention. Why? It wasn’t only Michelle who cheated throughout their entire marriage. John himself had his fair share of women on the side. One of those women was the one and only Mia Farrow, who at the time was still married to Frank Sinatra. It seemed to happen while the Sultan of Swoon was away on tour.
But Sinatra found out, and obviously, he wasn’t happy about it. He used his ties with the mob, specifically with Chicago mafia boss Sam Giancana, to send John a little “warning.” A few mob thugs allegedly paid the cheating “Papa” a visit, but he wasn’t even intimidated. John decided to protect himself with his own small collection of weapons.
Michelle’s 8-Day Marriage to Dennis Hopper
John had a reputation for trying to control his wife, Michelle. It’s rumored that the reason he made her a member of his New Journeymen trio back in the day – regardless of the fact that she had no musical experience, was to keep her close. Her multiple affairs were her way of acting out. Once the two divorced and the Mamas and the Papas disbanded, Michelle continued her relationships with other famous men.
One man was Dennis Hopper. As she was trying to start her acting career, she and Hopper got married. What happened afterward isn’t clear, but they ended up filing for divorce a mere eight days later. Michelle later dated Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.
Cass Elliot Was Arrested in England
In 1967, the Mamas & the Papas were asked to play at the Royal Albert Hall in England. On the boat ride to England, they learned that policemen were waiting on shore with a warrant for Elliot’s arrest. The group quickly rid themselves of their drugs. Upon arrival, Elliot was immediately arrested. Why? Apparently, she was accused of stealing towels and not paying a hotel bill after a previous UK visit. Well, that was the official reason.
The underlying reason for the UK police involvement was likely Elliot’s on-again, off-again relationship with an alleged drug smuggler called Pic Dawson. Either way, the other band members waited outside with their “Free Mama Cass” signs. After no evidence was produced, the charges against her were dropped.
California Dreamin’s Mandela Effect
It’s called the Mandela Effect, or a false memory. You know how many people swear it was the Berenstain Bears and not the correct Berenstain Bears books? Yeah. The same sort of thing happened with “California Dreamin’.” Some swear that the lyrics were, “I began to pray.” But the actual line is, “I pretend to pray.”
If it makes you feel any better for mistaking the line all this time, then maybe you’d be happy to hear that Mama Cass herself thought it was also “began to pray”! Michelle Williams, who wrote those lines, recalled in a 2018 interview: “We were all doing the soundcheck, and [Cass] turned to me and said, ‘What? What did you just say? The lyric is… I began to pray.’ I said, Cass, I wrote the lyric, I think I know what it is!”
Michelle, the Last Mama
Michelle Phillips is now 76 and has reflected on her past with the Mamas and the Papas. According to Michelle, she had “no ambition whatsoever to ever be on stage.” She said she just wanted to be John’s wife. Her vision was to be in the kitchen making spaghetti… “And he would say ‘Hey Mitch, come in here, sing this part.’”
She would then go back to making dinner. It never occurred to her that she would actually become part of the group. She admitted that at first it was very hard and she was afraid. “When I got into the studio at Western Sounds with Lou Adler and the group, I had never been in front of the microphone before.”
Who’s Her Daddy?
Cass Elliot gave birth to her daughter Owen Vanessa in April of 1967. But she never publicly identified who the father was. Years later, however, and after Elliot’s death, Michelle Phillips helped Owen locate her biological father. When Chuck Day, also known as Bing Day, the American guitarist and bluesman, died in 2008, it was revealed that he was the father.
After Elliot’s death, her younger sister, Leah Kunkel (then married to session drummer Russ Kunkel), received full custody of Owen, who was just seven years old when her mother died. Leah raised her along with her own son, Nathaniel. Owen eventually became a singer in her own right and toured with Beach Boys member Al Jardine.
The Purest Soprano
Michelle Phillips has been recognized for her soprano vocals, even being deemed by Time as “the purest soprano” in pop music. Not bad for a girl who didn’t even want to be on stage! A 1977 Billboard review described her voice as “both spirited and smooth.” Despite the critical acclaim for her singing, Michelle was self-conscious of her voice.
She stated that Cass encouraged her during the time together in the Mamas & the Papas. In 2004, she recalled: “I’ve yet to meet another woman as strong, funny and fiercely independent as Cass was. She was very generous vocally, too. John would give us these impossibly high parts to sing because he loved the sound of girls in the clouds. Cass would tell me, ‘Just go for it, Mich!”
A Proud Mother’s Reaction
But Michelle is a proud mother now. She took great pride in witnessing the massive success of her musician daughter, Chynna, as a member of the early 1990’s pop group called Wilson Phillips.
After Mackenzie Phillips dropped the bomb about her father in her memoir and even appeared on Oprah, Michelle had a few things to say about her late ex-husband and his daughter. “I’m so embarrassed and mad,” she said. “At Oprah, at the publisher, and at Mackenzie, who should be on a psychiatrist’s couch, not on TV.”
Michelle wasn’t quite ready to admit that her ex-husband and father of her daughter, Chynna, could have really committed such heinous acts. “Is this all true? We’ll never know because she waited until John was dead.” Michelle said.
Jill Gibson’s Stint in the Band
What about that moment when Michelle was kicked out of the band by her own husband? Well, she was promptly replaced by Jill Gibson, who was the girlfriend of the band’s producer, Lou Adler. Gibson’s short stint as an impromptu “Mama” lasted only two and a half months. But they were an eventual 2 and a half months, in which she got to tour with the band.
There was a promotional campaign to introduce Jill Gibson as the newest Mama, with articles in Newsweek magazine, featuring an article that referred to Gibson as “skeletal, modish, blonde and beautiful.” But once Michelle came back to her original spot in the group, Gibson was given a lump sum for her short-term efforts.