The Mamas & the Papas was a folk rock vocal group formed in Los Angeles, California, which recorded and performed from 1965 to 1968. The group was a defining force in the music scene of the counterculture of the 1960s. The group consisted of Americans John Phillips, Cass Elliot, and Michelle Phillips, and Canadian Denny Doherty. Its sound was based on vocal harmonies arranged by John Phillips, the songwriter, musician, and leader of the group, who adapted folk to the new beat style of the early 1960s.
The Mamas & the Papas released five studio albums and 17 singles over four years, six of which made the Billboard top 10, and has sold close to 40 million records worldwide. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for its contributions to the music industry. The band reunited briefly to record the album People Like Us in 1971 but had ceased touring and performing by that time. Some of its most popular singles include "California Dreamin'", "Monday, Monday", and "Dedicated to the One I Love".
Background and formation
The Mamas & the Papas was formed by husband and wife John Phillips (formerly of the New Journeymen) and Michelle Phillips, and Denny Doherty (formerly of the Mugwumps). Both of these earlier acts were folk groups active in 1964 and 1965. The last member to join was Cass Elliot, Doherty's bandmate in the Mugwumps, who had to overcome John Phillips's concerns that her voice was too low for his arrangements, that her obesity would be an obstacle to the band's success, and that her temperament was incompatible with his (Elliot struggled with obesity all her life and felt deeply insecure about her physical appearance). The group considered calling itself the Magic Cyrcle before switching to the Mamas & the Papas, inspired by the Hells Angels, whose female associates were called "mamas".
The quartet spent the period from early spring to midsummer 1965 in the Virgin Islands "to rehearse and just put everything together", as John Phillips later recalled. Phillips acknowledged that he was reluctant to abandon folk music. Others, including Doherty and guitarist Eric Hord, have said he hung on to it "like death". Roger McGuinn's view is that "[i]t was hard for John to break out of folk music because I think he was really good at it, conservative, and successful, too." Phillips also acknowledged that it was Doherty and Elliot who awakened him to the potential of contemporary pop, as epitomized by the Beatles. Previously the New Journeymen had played acoustic folk with banjo, and the Mugwumps played something closer to folk rock, with bass and drums. The rehearsals in the Virgin Islands were "the first time that we tried playing electric".
The band then traveled from New York to Los Angeles for an audition with Lou Adler, co-owner of Dunhill Records. The audition was arranged by Barry McGuire, who had befriended Cass Elliot and John Phillips independently during the previous two years and who had recently signed with Dunhill. The audition led to "a deal in which they would record two albums a year for the next five years", with a royalty of 5% on 90% of retail sales. Dunhill Records also tied the band to management and publishing deals, commonly known as a "triple hat" relationship. Cass Elliot's membership was not formalized until the paperwork was signed, with Adler, Michelle Phillips, and Doherty overruling John Phillips.
1965: Beginning and debut
The Mamas & the Papas made their first recording singing background vocals on McGuire's album This Precious Time, although they had already released a single of their own by the time the album appeared in December 1965. The single "Go Where You Wanna Go", which was given a limited release in November, failed to chart. The follow-up, "California Dreamin'", has the same B-side, suggesting that "Go Where You Wanna Go" had been withdrawn. "California Dreamin'" was released in December, touted by a full-page advertisement in Billboard on December 18. It peaked at No. 4 in the United States and No. 23 in the United Kingdom. "Go Where You Wanna Go" was covered by the 5th Dimension on its album Up, Up and Away and became a Top 10 hit.
The quartet's debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, followed in February 1966 and became its only No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The third and final single from the album, "Monday, Monday", was released in March 1966. It became the band's only No. 1 hit in the US, reached No. 3 in the UK, and was the first No. 1 on Spain's Los 40 Principales. "Monday, Monday" won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 1967. It was also nominated for Best Performance by a Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Song and Record of the Year.
1966: The Mamas & the Papas
The band's second album, The Mamas & the Papas, is sometimes referred to as Cass, John, Michelle, Dennie, whose names appear above the band's name on the cover, including the unexplained misspelling of Doherty's first name. The recording was interrupted when Michelle Phillips became indiscreet about her affair with Gene Clark of the Byrds. A liaison between Michelle and Denny Doherty had already been forgiven by her husband, John Phillips; Doherty and John Phillips co-wrote "I Saw Her Again" about the affair. They later disagreed about how much Doherty contributed to the song. Following Michelle's affair with Clark, John Phillips was determined to fire her. After consulting their attorney and record label, John, Elliot, and Doherty served Michelle with a letter expelling her from the group on June 28, 1966.
Jill Gibson was hired to replace Michelle. Gibson was a visual artist and singer-songwriter who had recorded with Jan and Dean. After being introduced to the band by its producer, Lou Adler, Gibson soon took part in concerts in Forest Hills (New York City), Denver, Colorado, and Phoenix, Arizona; television appearances including The Hollywood Palace on ABC; and recording sessions. While Gibson was a quick study and well-regarded, the three original members concluded she lacked her predecessor's "stage charisma and grittier edge", and Michelle Phillips was reinstated on August 23, 1966. Jill Gibson left the band and was paid a lump sum from the group's funds.
The Mamas & the Papas peaked at No. 4 in the US and No. 24 in the UK, continuing the band's success. "I Saw Her Again" was released as a single in June 1966 and reached No. 5 in the US and No. 11 in the UK. There is a false start to the final chorus of the song at 2'42". While mixing the record, Bones Howe inadvertently punched in the coda vocals too early. He then rewound the tape and inserted the vocals in their proper position. On playback, the mistaken early entry could still be heard, making it sound as though Doherty repeated the first three words, singing "I saw her ... I saw her again last night". Lou Adler liked the effect, and told Howe to leave it in the final mix. "That has to be a mistake: nobody's that clever", Paul McCartney told the group. The device was imitated by John Sebastian in the Lovin' Spoonful song, "Darling Be Home Soon" (1966), and by Kenny Loggins in the song "I'm Alright" (1980). "Words of Love" was the second single from the album, released in November 1966 as a double A-side with "Dancing in the Street". The record reached No. 5 in the US. "Dancing in the Street", which had been a hit two years earlier for Martha and the Vandellas, struggled to No. 73. In the UK it was backed with "I Can't Wait" and peaked at No. 47.
With Michelle Phillips reinstated, the group embarked on a small tour on the East Coast to promote the record in the fall of 1966. At a September 1966 concert at Fordham University in New York City, the band was noted by Gus Duffy and Jim Mason of their co-headlining band, Webster's New Word, as being clearly "high, drunk, or tripping. When they got on stage, it was clear that these people shouldn't be on stage ... They tumbled onto the stage, shambled around, and just got nowhere".
1967: The Mamas & the Papas Deliver
After completing their East Coast tour, the group started work immediately on its third album, The Mamas & The Papas Deliver, which was recorded in the autumn of 1966. The first single from the album, "Look Through My Window", was released in September 1966 before the last single from The Mamas & the Papas. It reached No. 24 in the US. The second single, "Dedicated to the One I Love", released in February 1967, did better, peaking at No. 2 in both the US and the UK. The success of "Dedicated to the One I Love" helped the album, which was also released in February 1967, reach No. 2. The third single, "Creeque Alley", released April 1967, chronicled the band's early history and reached No. 5 in the US.
By June 1967, the strain on the group was apparent when it performed indifferently at the Monterey International Pop Festival, as can be heard on Historic Performances Recorded at the Monterey International Pop Festival (1970). The band was under-rehearsed, partly because John and Michelle Phillips and Lou Adler were preoccupied with organizing the festival, partly because Doherty arrived at the last minute from another sojourn in the Virgin Islands, and partly because he was drinking heavily in the aftermath of his affair with Michelle Phillips. The Mamas & the Papas rallied for its performance before 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in August with Jimi Hendrix as the opener, which John and Michelle Phillips remembered as the apex of the band's career, saying, "There would never be anything quite like it again".
The Mamas & the Papas Deliver was followed in October 1967 by the non-album single "Glad to Be Unhappy", which reached No. 26 in the US. "Dancing Bear" from the group's second album was released as a single in November. It peaked at No. 51 in the US. Neither "Glad to Be Unhappy" nor "Dancing Bear" charted in the UK.
1968: The Papas & the Mamas
The Mamas & the Papas cut their first three albums at United Western Recorders in Hollywood, while the group's subsequent releases were recorded at the eight-track studio that John and Michelle Phillips had built at their home in Bel Air, at a time when four-track recording was still the norm. John Phillips said, "I got the idea to transform the attic into my own recording studio, so I could stay high all the time and never have to worry about studio time. I began assembling the state-of-the-art equipment and ran the cost up to about a hundred grand".
While having his own studio gave John Phillips the autonomy he craved, it also removed the external discipline that may have been beneficial to a man who described himself as an "obsessive perfectionist". Doherty, Elliot and Adler found the arrangement uncongenial. Elliot complained to Rolling Stone on October 26, 1968, "We spent one whole month on one song; just the vocals for 'The Love of Ivy' took one whole month. I did my album in three weeks, a total of ten days in the studio. Live with the band, not prerecorded tracks sitting there with earphones." The recording sessions for the fourth album stalled, and in September 1967 John Phillips called a press conference to announce that the Mamas & the Papas were taking a break, which the band confirmed on The Ed Sullivan Show that aired on September 24.
The Mamas & the Papas planned to give concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Olympia in Paris before taking time out on Majorca to "get the muse going again". When the group docked at Southampton on October 5, Elliot was arrested for stealing two blankets and a hotel key worth 10 guineas ($28) when in England the previous February. Elliot was transferred to London, where she spent a night in custody after being strip-searched, before the case was dismissed in the West London Magistrates' Court the next day. The hotel was less interested in the blankets than in an unpaid bill. Elliot had entrusted the money to her companion, Harris Pickens "Pic" Dawson III, who neglected to settle the account. The police were less interested in the blankets or the bill than in Dawson, who was suspected of international drug trafficking and was the sole subject of their questioning.
Later, at a party hosted by the band to celebrate Elliot's acquittal, John Phillips interrupted Elliot as she was telling the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger about her arrest and trial and said, "Mick, she's got it all wrong, that's not how it was at all." Elliot screamed at Phillips and stormed out of the room. Elliot was ready to quit, the Royal Albert Hall and Olympia dates were canceled, and the four went their separate ways. John and Michelle Phillips went to Morocco, Doherty returned to the United States, and Elliot went either to the United States (according to John Phillips) or to a rendezvous in Paris with Pic Dawson (according to Michelle Phillips). In an interview with Melody Maker, Elliot unilaterally announced that the Mamas & the Papas had disbanded, saying "We thought this trip would give the group some stimulation, but this has not been so."
John Phillips and Elliot reconciled to complete The Papas & The Mamas, which was released in May 1968. The album was the band's first album not to go gold or reach the top 10 in America. "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)" was released as a single in August 1967 and peaked at No. 20 in the US. After the second single, "Safe in My Garden" (May 1968), made it only to No. 53, Dunhill Records released Elliot's solo from the album, a remake of "Dream a Little Dream of Me", as a single credited to "Mama Cass with the Mamas & the Papas" in June 1968, against John Phillips' wishes. The song reached No. 12 in the US and No. 11 in the UK, making "Dream a Little Dream of Me" the only single by the Mamas & Papas to chart higher in the UK than in the US. The fourth and final single from The Papas & The Mamas, "For the Love of Ivy" (July 1968), peaked at No. 81 in the US. For the second time, Dunhill Records returned to the band's earlier work for a single, releasing "Do You Wanna Dance" from the debut album in October 1968. The song reached No. 76 in the US.
1968–1969: Break-up and People Like Us
The success of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" confirmed Elliot's desire to embark on a solo career, and by the end of 1968 it appeared that the group had split. John Phillips recalled, "Times had changed. The Beatles showed the way. Music itself was heading toward a technological and compositional complexity that would leave many of us behind. It was tough to keep up." The group met its demise officially in early 1969, as John Phillips recalled, saying "Dunhill released us from our contracts and we were history, though we still owed the label another album." Elliot, billed as Mama Cass, had released her solo debut Dream a Little Dream in 1968, Phillips released John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.) in 1970, and Denny Doherty followed with Watcha Gonna Do? in 1971.
Dunhill Records maintained momentum by releasing The Best of the Mamas & the Papas: Farewell to the First Golden Era in 1967, Golden Era Vol. 2 in 1968, 16 of Their Greatest Hits in 1969 and the Monterey live album in 1970. The record company was determined to get the band's contractually obligated last album, for which it had given the band an extension until September 1971. The label warned the band that each member would be sued for $250,000 if the band did not deliver the album. A lawsuit and countersuit between the band and label were settled out of court, and it was determined that the band would record under John Phillips's label, Warlock Records, distributed by Dunhill Records. John Phillips wrote a collection of songs, which was arranged, rehearsed, and recorded throughout the year, depending on the availability of the other group members. Band members were rarely together at one time and most tracks were dubbed, one vocal at a time.
The Mamas & the Papas' last album of new material, People Like Us, was released in November 1971. The only single, "Step Out", reached No. 81 in the US. The album peaked at No. 84 on the Billboard 200, making it the only album by the Mamas & Papas not to reach the top 20 in the US. Neither single nor album charted in the UK. Contractual obligations fulfilled, the band's split was final.