With their dreamy four-part harmonies and summery folk sound, The Mamas and the Papas helped to soundtrack the first Summer of Love. But although they presented a shiny, happy front, the quartet were plagued by problems behind the scenes. Here’s a look at how their California Dreamin’ quickly turned into a nightmare.
The Mamas and the Papas consisted of married couple Michelle and John Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, aka Mama Cass. Named after the Hells Angels’ female associates the “mamas,” the group released their debut LP, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears in 1966. And for the following few years the group appeared untouchable.
Indeed, the band ruled the airwaves with the likes of “Monday, Monday,” “Dedicated to the One I Love” and their signature song, “California Dreamin’.” And much of their appeal came from their stunning male/female four-part harmonies. However, one of their biggest hits, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” was a Mama Cass solo number.
The group released four albums in just three years toward the end of the Swinging Sixties. And their worldwide sales total stands at the 40 million mark. Furthermore, in 1997 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Each member also pursued solo careers following the group’s split.
Now, John Phillips was undoubtedly the leader of the band. Heavily inspired by Elvis Presley, the singer/songwriter had performed in several other outfits before finding fame with The Mamas and the Papas, including The Journeymen and The Smoothies. Also, John formed an offshoot of the former, which saw him mix business with pleasure.
Indeed, The New Journeymen saw John join forces with a much younger vocalist and model known as Michelle Gilliam. Not only did the pair start writing songs together, they also formed a romantic relationship. And by the time the group evolved into The Mamas and the Papas, John and Michelle had become husband and wife.
Meanwhile, Cassandra “Cass” Elliot had first caught people’s attention in the musical theater world, appearing in various off-Broadway productions and a touring version of The Music Man. She later achieved moderate success as one third of folk outfit The Big 3, who reinvented themselves as The Mugwumps. And Denny Doherty, who’d previously performed in The Halifax Three, joined the line-up but was soon recruited by John.
Now, Doherty wanted to bring Elliot along with him, but due to her larger size and imposing personality, John took some convincing. However, following a group jaunt to the Caribbean which inspired one of their defining tracks, “Creeque Alley,” he finally succumbed. Although an unfortunate accident ended up playing a major part in his decision.
Yes, in 1968 Elliot told Rolling Stone that she inadvertently returned from the Virgin Islands with a more expansive vocal range. She said, “I did get hit on the head by a pipe that fell down and my range was increased by three notes. I had a bad headache for about two weeks and all of a sudden I was singing higher. It’s true.”
And all four members brought something distinctive to the table. You see, John was the driving force of the group who would not only write their material but produce it too. His wife Michelle was viewed as the glamorpuss of the band, with Allmusic’s Bruce Eder describing her as a “raving beauty, capable of stopping air traffic with just the hint of a smile or a glimmer of libidinal interest in her eyes.”
Furthermore, Doherty fulfilled a similar role for the opposite sex thanks to his brooding hippie image and enchanting vocals. Meanwhile, Elliot was an Earth Mother figure whose stunning vocals were regarded by many as the band’s secret weapon. Both sonically and visually, the group happened to be in the right place at the right time.
So the band’s path to stardom began when they landed a deal with Dunhill Records in 1965. By the start of the following year their first single “California Dreamin’” was spearheading a new scene called sunshine pop. And its parent album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, proved there were plenty more soaring harmonies to come.
As well as topping the charts in the United States, the record spawned a second bona fide classic single in the shape of “Monday, Monday.” In fact, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears would prove to be one of the best-selling records of 1966. And keen to keep the momentum going, The Mamas and the Papas wasted little time in following it up.
Indeed, the group’s eponymous sophomore arrived just seven months after their first studio effort hit the shelves. And the famous session musician collective known as The Wrecking Crew had been hired to enhance their lush sound even further. The Mamas and the Papas subsequently reached No.4 on the Billboard 200, spawning the top five single “I Saw Her Again.”
This winning and prolific streak continued in 1967 with their third LP, Deliver. Named in honor of Elliot who was pregnant with her daughter at the time of its recording, the album added to the group’s catalog of sun-soaked harmony-laden hits. Indeed, both “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Creeque Alley” reached the top five in their U.S. homeland.
Surprisingly, Michelle and John extended their pop culture influence beyond the band in 1967 when they helped to co-found one of the defining rock events of the decade. Yes, the Monterey International Pop Festival propelled several previously unknown names to superstardom including Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Also, John penned a hit for his former Journeymen colleague Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair).”
Not to be outshone, Elliot left her mark on 1960s’ culture outside the group. Yes, she was instrumental in the formation of Crosby, Stills and Nash having implored its three members, all of whom she considered friends, to join forces. Elliot told Rolling Stone, “Music happens in my house and that pleases me. Joni Mitchell has written many songs sitting in my living room.”
Weirdly, the group released their slightly confusingly-titled fourth LP, The Papas and the Mamas, at the Phillips’ newly-built home studio in 1968. But its most popular number, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” was credited entirely to Elliot. Many saw this as a sign that the group were preparing to go their separate ways.
Sadly, that proved to be the case. In 1969 and after just three years of making sweet music together, The Mamas and the Papas decided to call it a day. The group did reunite in 1971 to fulfil a contractual obligation with fifth album People Like Us. However, to the disappointment of their many fans it didn’t lead to a full-blown reunion.
But for those who knew about everything going on behind the scenes, it seems remarkable that the band lasted as long as they did. Indeed, In stark contrast to their uplifting, dreamy sound, The Mamas and the Papas were always embroiled in some kind of drama. And as with many mixed-gender groups, affairs of the heart were often the root cause.
Indeed, long before the likes of Fleetwood Mac and ABBA, The Mamas and the Papas showed just how badly personal relationships can get in the way of a band’s career. You see, Elliot found it particularly hard to deal with her unrequited love for Doherty. And the object of her affections didn’t exactly help matters when he embarked on an affair with her fellow bandmate.
Yes, the Phillips had an open marriage and so Michelle was free to get intimate with both of her male bandmates. The singer recalled in a 2007 interview with Vanity Fair, “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 me that we’d be playing footsie under the table, and Cass and John didn’t notice it.”
Of course, with the pair’s less than subtle behavior, word eventually got around to the heartbroken Elliot. Michelle admitted, “Cass confronted me and said, ‘I don’t get it. You could have any man you want. Why would you take mine?’” But it wasn’t just Elliot that had a major problem with this second intra-band relationship.
That’s right, John also struggled to deal with it. And he even briefly forced Michelle out of the group when he learned she’d been seeing another musician, The Byrds’ Gene Clark. Michelle was only reinstated after much pleading from the group’s fans. Although they rekindled their personal and professional relationship, Michelle and John didn’t get a happy ending, divorcing in 1970.
Also, Elliot found herself on the wrong side of John toward the end of the group’s career. For her interests outside The Mamas and the Papas had put the singer in a stronger position to fight for her role within the group, something which appeared to irk its leader. Michelle told Vanity Fair, “Cass was unique in the sense that she had some money, she had a lot of friends and she was not dependent on John.”
And in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Elliot revealed why she needed to maintain her independence. She said, “I didn’t just want to be part of a group. I wanted to be able to do television, and a movie if it came up, to sort of diversify myself, to extend myself. Within the framework of a group, that freedom is not possible.”
But while Elliot’s career was thriving, her love life remained relatively hopeless. She told Rolling Stone, “It’s easy to find boyfriends. I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.” The star did walk down the aisle but it was only a marriage of convenience to help a pal avoid the military draft. And although she had a daughter, she never revealed who the father was.
As with most groups of the era, drugs and alcohol played a significant part of The Mamas and the Papas’ story. For instance, Michelle once admitted that they always ensured they had a stash of pot and whiskey whenever they entered the studio. While Doherty once told The New York Times, “The first thing I did in the morning and the last thing I did at night was have a blast of rum.”
The band even became inadvertently embroiled in one of the most shocking murder cases of the decade. Yes, in 1969 the Manson Family slaughtered several people including actress Sharon Tate. And her husband Roman Polanski initially believed that John may have been responsible in an act of revenge. For the film director had previously become another notch on Michelle’s bedpost.
Sadly, things didn’t get much better once the group parted company for good in 1971. In fact they got much worse. Elliot had initially forged a promising solo career, scoring a hit with “Make Your Own Kind of Music” and becoming a regular on both the big and small screen. But in 1974 her life ended in tragedy.
Yes, Elliot had just finished a fortnight of sold-out shows in London when she collapsed in an apartment she’d been staying at. Although rumors circulated that she had choked on a sandwich, she’d actually suffered a fatal heart attack. Reports emerged that the star’s death may have been triggered by the extreme diet she was adhering to at the time.
Meanwhile, John struggled with substance abuse for the next decade. In fact, his drug use damaged his circulation so significantly that it blackened his hands. After being arrested for the distribution of drugs in 1980, John attended rehab, while 12 years later he underwent a liver transplant. He’s quoted by People magazine as saying, “I have no idea what my music would’ve been like without the drugs.”
But John still managed to enjoy the odd career success, serving as a co-writer on the Beach Boys’ latter-day hit “Kokomo.” Also, he hit the road with his eldest daughter, Mackenzie Phillips, to form The New Mamas and the Papas. However, Mackenzie made some disturbing accusations against her father eight years after his 2001 death.
Furthermore, Doherty had his own demons to deal with following The Mamas and the Papas’ split. Yes, he became overly reliant on alcohol, although he eventually managed to get sober. Sadly, his later years were marred by ill-health. And just a month after being put on dialysis for a kidney problem, Doherty died at his Canadian home, aged 66 in 2007.
In fact, Michelle proved to be the only The Mamas and the Papas member to emerge from the band’s split relatively unscathed. She enjoyed acting success with roles in the likes of prime time soap opera Knots Landing and crime movie Dillinger. Actually, she even picked up a New Star of the Year nomination at the Golden Globes for her performance in the latter.
But Michelle’s romantic life has proven to be just as eventful as it was during the Summer of Love. She got hitched to Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper, but their marriage lasted little more than a week. She also had high profile relationships with two other Hollywood legends, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.
Despite what happened, The Mamas and the Papas’ legacy has continued in the half-century since their split. In 2003 Doherty starred in a musical based on the group’s music, Dream a Little Dream of Me. And countless compilations and books about their eventful life story have kept the quartet in the public eye.
Interestingly, several of the group’s offspring have forged a career in the entertainment world, too. Chynna Phillips, the daughter of John and Michelle, achieved success in the early 1990s as a member of vocal trio Wilson Phillips. Her bandmates were also born into pop royalty, with Wendy and Carnie Wilson the daughters of Beach Boys architect Brian.
Another of John’s daughters, Bijou Phillips, is a singer, model and actress who received critical acclaim for her performances in Black and White and Bully. Michelle’s son Austin has also pursued a career in acting. While Doherty’s son John enjoyed a stint in the Canadian punk/ska outfit known as illScarlett.
In 2020 Michelle was interviewed about the Laurel Canyon scene, which The Mamas and the Papas were a major part of. And in a chat with Forbes to promote the film she revealed that looking back brought her mixed emotions. She said, “In some cases, I just cried my eyes out and other times I felt so overwhelmed with joy that all this stuff had happened in my life.”