John, Michelle, Denny, and Cass. These four names make up the Mamas and the Papas, a signature folk/pop group of the late 1960’s whose unique musical style continues to influence many today. They had a unique harmonic blend arranged by John Phillips, the singer and prolific songwriter who headed the group. Michelle Phillips, John’s wife, would add a sweet soprano voice to the group. Denny Doherty acted as tenor and lead singer. Cass Elliot would round out the group with an incredibly rich and powerful voice, used on many solos, and a flamboyant personality which would make the Mamas and Papas even more unique.
Below is a history of the group which traces their career as the Mamas and the Papas. For each individual, you can also find their pre- and post-career information by clicking on one of the names below. For an even more interesting and detailed history of how the group came together, be sure and check out the Creeque Alley site of Richard Thorpe which analyzes the group’s biographical song “Creeque Alley” in detail.
Prior to singing together, the members of the group that would become the Mamas and the Papas crossed paths at many points while playing New York and other areas in the folk movement of the early 60’s (see individual histories). As the centrality of this movement began to fade and a more electric sound began to gain in popularity, John, Michelle, and Denny (who by that time had come together as a group) took off to the Virgin Islands for a time away from the New York scene and a chance to seek new musical direction. (John being the principal songwriter and leader of the group). Cass, who had yet to join with the group because of resistance from John based on her ability to blend with the others, followed them down to St. Thomas Island and the bar at Creeque Alley called Duffy’s where much of their new music would take shape.
It was on the island, therefore, that the four members of the group first sang together and began to solidify their harmony and sound. John came up with a whole new style of folk-pop music. Even by this point, however, the four were not officially a group and Cass finally left for California. Just after her departure, John and the rest also had to leave, not so much by choice but by the request of the governor of the island who had begun to find their presence intrusive. Upon the return to New York, it was evident that the trio no longer had a place in the music scene and it seemed time to leave for a more “happening” area. This time it was John, Michelle, and Denny who followed Cass to California where they met up with her and, through connections she had made, were able to audition as a group for producer Lou Adler.
The Mamas and Papas are born
This would be the official start of the group. Lou Adler was amazed by their talent and offered them almost anything they wanted if they would begin recording under the Dunhill label. With cash, a car, and a home now available, the foursome quickly solidified their new sound. All they lacked was a name which, when it came, arose from an appropriately counter-culture source. While watching television, Cass and Michelle learned that the biker gang the Hell’s Angels referred to their women as “mamas”. They both began referring to themselves in this way. It followed naturally for the two guys to be “papas” and thus the name was born. It also served to emphasize that they were the first fully sexually integrated singing group of the era.
The first recordings the group made together was actually as the back-up singers on Barry McGuire’s album This Precious Time. It included a version of John’s “California Dreamin'” which the Mamas and Papas recorded as a single as well. Another single set for release was also held back, so the true recording debut of the Mamas and Papas, therefore, can said to have been the release of “California Dreamin'” in November 1965.
The record was received quite enthusiastically, making its way up to the # 4 position. This release was followed in January 1966 by their first number one hit “Monday, Monday”. These and other John Phillip’s hits would also appear on their first album released that March called If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears which was received with much praise. Many of its songs would be released as singles.
The internal strife that would plague the group were already evident at this point, however. Despite the fact that John and Michelle were married, it had been obvious from the start that she and Denny were attracted to each other. This attraction would soon lead to an ongoing affair of which John was vaguely aware. Cass’s unrequited feelings for Denny did not help in this dynamic as a jealousy grew between her and Michelle. This pressure and distrust was chronicled in their next single release called “I Saw Her Again Last Night”.
In the midst of these problems, the group would continue recording and went on to release yet another album The Mamas and the Papas in August 1966 which included that song and others written by John. Very soon thereafter, however, the tension between John and Michelle would become so invasive and the affair between her and Denny so evident that John used his control to fire Michelle from the group. She was quickly replaced with Jill Gibson (producer Lou Adler’s girlfriend at the time) and they even designed a new cover for their album which would replace Michelle’s picture with Jill’s. After only a little bit of touring, however, it was evident that this change in membership was not accepted by the fans. Michelle was eventually invited back by the end of the year.
The Monterey interlude
As one could imagine, the group dynamic remained tense after this point, but the group did continue to record. Their next album Deliver would be released in February 1967 which would include the single “Creeque Alley” chronicling their beginning. This would be followed by one of the major events of the period which the Mamas and Papas were instrumental in creating. Working with a variety of friends in the music industry, they (principally John) put together a festival of music in Monterey (near San Francisco) in June 1967 which became known as the Monterey Pop Festival. It was a seminal event, one of the first large non-profit, “youth generation” concerts of its time and an evident predecessor of Woodstock. It would bring together both old and new talent such as Simon and Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Who, and others. The Mamas and Papas were the headliner group and it seemed that they were on their way to even bigger stardom.
The Golden Era ends
Despite this appearance on stage, the group itself was having serious problems. Denny spent much of the time prior to the festival away and barely showed up to sing at it. With tensions in the group so high, John felt that they were losing their edge and wanted to take some time away to recapture what they had once had as a group by taking a trip abroad together. This explains the release of a greatest hits compilation at the time called Farewell to the First Golden Era with which the studio hoped to fill in the expected gap. The trip itself would be a disaster from the start, however, with the arrest and accusation of the members for drugs and other offenses. The supposed time away for renewing ties and regaining the Mamas and Papas magic was quickly cut short.
Upon their return, the group began on what could be called the final “true” Mamas and the Papas album. Entitled The Papas and the Mamas, it was released in April 1968. By the time of its release, however, the members of the group had reached the decision to break up. Anxious to have a continued hit maker, the studio released the next two singles “Midnight Voyage” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in June under the name of Mama Cass with the Mamas and the Papas, hoping to boost Cass’s emerging solo career.
With the break up of the group, the members would begin their own solo careers (see individual histories at left). The marketing of their music would continue, however, with a number of greatest hits releases appearing almost right away. The year 1970 would also see the release of their live recording from the Monterey Pop Festival.
People Like Us
The following year, with the switch of their label to ABC, the members of the group were contacted by the corporation’s lawyers to say that they were under contractual obligation to produce one last album as the Mamas and the Papas. Though the four did come together for this purpose, most people (including the foursome themselves) found the attempt to be half-hearted and lacking. Though the harmonies still existed, the album hardly compares to the group’s previous work. Nevertheless, this last official album by the Mamas and Papas called People Like Us was released in October 1971.
The legend lives on
The Mamas and the Papas would never record together again as a group. Cass’s death in 1974 made that an undeniable reality. Nevertheless, John would eventually bring together several singers to recreate the new Mamas and Papas as a touring group, singing old classics and a few newer songs. They would release a few concert albums as well. This fact only serves to demonstrate the continued popularity of the group who had endeared themselves to many fans. It was no surprise when the original Mamas and Papas were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. The music they created remains popular to this day.