The Mamas and the Papas were a major part of the Southern California pop scene of the mid to late Sixties.
Along with the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Turtles and the Association, they bombarded the Top Forty with superbly produced folk-pop songs delivered with lush harmonies.
What made the Mamas and the Papas stand out was the mix of male (John Phillips, Denny Doherty) and female (Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips) voices. Combined with sharp songwriting and arrangements from Phillips and musical contributions from some of Los Angeles’ finest session musicians—especially drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Joe Osborne and keyboardist Larry Knechtel—the Mamas and the Papas cut some of the most unforgettable songs of the Sixties. “California Dreamin’,” in particular, endures as an anthem of those heady times.
The group formed out of the “New Folk” movement of the late Fifties and early Sixties. John Phillips had been a member of the Journeymen, a folk trio that also included Dick Weissmann and Scott McKenzie. (McKenzie would go on to record a song of Phillips’, “San Francisco [Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair],” that became a hit during the summer of 1967.) In a similar vein, Cass Elliot had been in the Big Three, while Denny Doherty belonged to the Halifax Three. Both Elliot and Doherty came together in the Mugwumps, which also included John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, later of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Michelle Phillips was an aspiring model (born Holly Michelle Gilliam) and the wife of John Phillips.
John, Michelle and Denny performed in the New Journeymen, a temporary group put together to fulfill contractual obligations after the original trio’s breakup. In 1965 the three of them then headed to St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, to write and rehearse. They were joined by the alto-voiced Cass Elliot. The foursome relocated to Los Angeles, where they signed to Lou Adler’s Dunhill label. After briefly calling themselves the Magic Circle, they took the name the Mamas and the Papas. If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966), their first album, stands as a peak moment in the West Coast vocal-group sound. It contains “California Dreamin’,” which helped trigger the westward migration of rootless young people during the hippie era. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me over the years that the reason they were in California was because they heard the song ‘California Dreamin’,” Michelle Phillips recalled. “It changed their lives.” The Mamas and the Papas’ vocal blend, with its intricate harmonies and interweaving, prompted Life magazine to proclaim them “the most inventive pop musical group and first really new vocal sound since the Beatles.”
The Mamas and the Papas typified the new breed of groups that followed in the wake of the Beatles as America formulated its own response to the British Invasion. They dressed in colorful hippie garb and projected diverse looks and personalities. Their group identity, in fact, stemmed from their individuality and their rich blending of voices. A string of hit singles followed “California Dreamin’.” Many of them—including “Monday Monday,” “I Saw Her Again” and “Creque Alley"—were written or co-written and arranged by John Phillips, who also contributed acoustic guitar. In addition, the group astutely picked material from the golden age of vocal groups, such as “Dedicated to the One I Love” (originally cut by the Shirelles) and “Spanish Harlem” (by Ben E. King). They even made an unlikely late-Sixties hit of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which dated back to the 1930s and was recorded by Frankie Laine, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and others.
The members of the Mamas and the Papas reigned among the hip vanguard of the L.A. scene during the late Sixties. John Phillips served as one of the principal organizers of the Monterey International Pop Festival, and the group performed at the historic event (though not very well, by their own admission). Phillips, who organized the festival with producer-impresario Lou Adler, reflected years later on what Monterey meant: “It gave the world an opportunity to hear just what new music was happening on this planet and how much it was changing.” It also served to introduce hip young rock fans to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin and the Who.
The Mamas and the Papas broke up in 1968 due to infighting after recording The Papas & the Mamas. They reunited briefly in 1971 to cut People Like Us in order to meet a contractual obligation and thereupon disbanded to pursue solo careers. Cass was the most successful of them, though she was plagued by health problems and died of a heart attack in 1974. John and Michelle were divorced in 1970, and Michelle went on to a successful acting career. John increasingly grew involved in the drug scene, a fall from grace candidly documented in his excellent autobiography, Papa John. After a well-publicized drug bust, Phillips cleaned up and re-formed the Mamas and the Papas in 1982. The group included founding member Denny Doherty and two new “Mamas”: Mackenzie Phillips (daughter of John) and Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, a longtime friend who had sung with Spanky and Our Gang back in the Sixties.