Leader and principal songwriter John Phillips had enjoyed limited success with The Journeymen before retiring to the Virgin Islands with his wife Michelle and two friends, Denny Doherty and Mama Cass Elliott (who had played in a New York group called The Mugwumps), to write songs and formulate plans for a four-part harmony vocal group.
The foursome moved to Los Angeles in 1965, where their sublime vocal harmonies secured them work with Barry McGuire and his manager, Lou Adler.
In little over a year, they released six Top Five singles – including California Dreamin’, the chart-topping Monday Monday, and Creeque Alley, which detailed their rise to fame – and four Top Five albums.
Their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was their masterpiece. Adler’s deft production was the perfect marriage to John Phillips’ resourceful songwriting and intricate vocal arrangements.
One frigid winter in Manhattan, a song came to Phillips in the middle of the night. He woke up his young wife, Michelle, who was homesick for the West Coast, to help him finish writing California Dreamin’, one of the all-time sunniest songs of longing.
Phillips was undoubtedly the architect behind their sound, although the group’s backing musicians included drummer Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn on bass, and Larry Knechtel on keyboards.
The group broke up in mid-1968 but in those three fleeting years, they encapsulated the folk-rock movement and defined, for better and worse, the dizzy flower power optimism of the love generation.
After The Mamas & The Papas, Michelle began acting. She appeared in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie in 1971 (she and Hopper were married for eight days and had an amicable split), but her first big role was opposite Warren Oates in John Milius’ Dillinger.
Mama Cass (born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Alexandria, Virginia) died on Monday 29 July 1974, at Flat 9, 12 Curzon Street, Mayfair in London. The flat was owned by Harry Nilsson, who rented it out to celebrity friends. Ironically, The Who drummer Keith Moon died in the same flat on 7 September 1978.
Cass had just completed a successful two-week engagement at the London Palladium on Saturday 27 July, and attended a cocktail party on Sunday 28th at Mick Jagger‘s house. The post-mortem showed that she died as a result of choking on a sandwich while in bed and from inhaling her own vomit.
Cass had complained to friends recently of frequent vomiting, possibly the result of dieting.
John Phillips relied on his skills as a producer and songwriter but would be a drug abuser, on and off, for the rest of his life until his heart gave out in 2001. Denny Doherty slipped from sight after a poorly received album and died at home in Ontario of kidney failure on 19 January 2007.