What do you think of The Mamas and the Papas?

I don’t hear this band mentioned much in the context of great older bands, so I was wondering what the general opinion of them was from other dopers.

My dad’s a fan of them so I’ve been hearing them all my life, but lately I’ve been starting to really appreciate their music. I love the way their harmonies sound, and some of their songwriting’s great. “California Dreamin’” is a great song.

Love 'em. There’s a lot of interesting history behind the group and its formation, especially how Mama Cass came in. Enjoy the research! :slight_smile:

Not only were they great musically, but they had an interesting history. If there’s any way you can get hold of the VH-1 Behind the Music episode on them, do so. It’s probably the best episode of that series. One of the things that’s revealed is the true story of how John and Michelle Phillips met. Most sources just say that they met in 1962 when Michelle came to New York from Los Angeles at 18 to become a model. In the Behind the Music episode, Michelle tells the complete story. She’s obviously very embarrassed as she relates it. In 1960, when she was 16 and John was 24 or 25, she had gone to San Francisco for the summer to stay with a friend. She and the friend went to a folk club there to see a performance by John’s group, the Journeymen. She met him after the performance and had an affair with him for the two weeks that his gig at the club lasted. John was married at the time and had two kids, as Michelle knew. Afterwards, she wrote to John and was baffled as to why he didn’t reply to her. So she travels to New York and comes to his apartment in Greenwich Village. She confronts his wife and tells her, “John and I are in love, so I think you should let him go so we can get married.” His wife, with more sympathy than you would expect her to have in these circumstances, told her, “You poor girl. Don’t you understand? John has a girl like you in every town he’s ever played?”

I like the story about the writing of California Dreamin’ .

John Phillips is writing the song, but doesn’t like having to stop to write down his lyrics, so he tells Michelle to wake up and help him. She’s tells him to leave her alone - she’s tired and trying to get some sleep. He’s says, “Just take 5 minutes and write down the lyrics as I give them to you. I’ll give you half the writing credit.” So, she gets out of bed, writes down the lyrics, and goes back to sleep.

I’d love to have the royalties she’s received for being awake for about 5 minutes.

By the time I was in college, they were distinctly Not Cool, but I liked them anyway. In the early 70s, people tended to dismiss well-made pop songs (Creedence suffered from this, too) in favor of more ambitious and blues-based work.

But John Phillips was a top-notch songwriters and the group’s harmonies were something to behold. I liked them from the start.

I saw them perform a few years ago. Of course, the only original members were John and Denny and the two women singers who probably weren’t born when the group began (John referred to the group as “The Papas and the Daughters”). Still, they sounded great.

It’s also interesting that the song “California Dreaming” is about Michelle. After all, who else in the group would care about California? Not John, whose father was a Marine officer (I think) and, in so far as he had a permanent home as a child, lived in the northeastern U.S. Not Cass, who grew up in Baltimore. And certainly not Denny, who grew up in Nova Scotia. It was Michelle who was miserable about having to spend winters in New York.

This sentence in my first post should end with a period, not a question mark:

John has a girl like you in every town he’s ever played?

God I’m old.

I adore them, right up there with The Beatles and the Beach Boys. And Cass Elliott had one of the greatest voices of her generation. I saw her on a rerun of the Smothers Brothers show, and I cringed at all the fat jokes.

One of the women was probably John’s daughter Mackenzie Philips (best known as Julie from One Day at a Time) who was part of the re-incarnated touring version of the group.

I love them – I bought their greatest hits album about a year ago and I listen to it quite a bit. California Dreamin’ really makes you feel the narrator’s disconnection, but that’s by no means the only really lovely song on that album.


Not just the formation. John wrote I Saw Her Again Last Night about the affair between Denny and Michelle (John’s wife, at this point). Making them sing it was his way of punishing them. The group, and the marriage, broke up not too long after.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before John Phillips’ death, and I seem to remember reading at the time that the three of them performed together as part of the ceremonies, but it was pretty tense.

If you even need to give an example of the the power of inspiration; someone doing a brief, intense period of great work and then it comes spectacularly apart; this is it.

A interesting fact about how great some people thought this group was back then: In Samuel Delany’s 1968 novel Nova, which is set in the year 3166, there’s a party where four people are dressed up as the Mamas and the Papas. (This is in the middle of chapter 3.) Hmm, so they’re still going to remember them 1200 years from now. Not very likely I think. Now, the Four Tops, maybe.

I hope I get this right. I might have seen it on the VH1 Behind the Music doc. It’s about the production of California Dreamin.’ Someone else recorded the main vocals with the girls doing the backup. It was decided later to use Denny’s voice as the lead, so the original track was removed and Denny’s laid in, preserving the original back-up. So the record was totally created, new when it was mixed. For some reason this fascinates me, even though I know records are made with multiple tracks.

Regarding the affairs, to top it all off, Cass was in love with Denny for the entire time the group existed, so we have her torment to add. Michelle was young and it was evident in the interviews she was not proud of her behavior as a “Mama.”

Lou Adler was the producer for both Barry McGuire and the Mamas and Papas. McGuire was the one who introduced them to Adler, and in return they offered him the chance to do “California Dreamin’” first. All the sources I find credit “the Mamas and Papas” with backing vocals, not just the girls. Moreover, the story goes that the harmonies were so great that the group decided to put out their own version, which is another indication that all four sang on it. Barry’s voice was wiped out (mostly: you can supposedly hear whispers of it in the background of one channel) and Denny’s vocal laid in, along with the terrific flute solo.

“California Dreamin’” is one of the greatest rock songs of the era, which means that nothing else they sang could live up to it. All of us should have such problems. :slight_smile:

My next favorite of their songs is a b-side I found on a boxed set, “Once Was a Time I Thought.” I don’t know if the original did this, but on the set it starts with the group struggling to get their harmonies together. Then they do, and the result is possibly the most beautiful vocalizing of the sixties. One minute of utter perfection.

That’s the sad story of the group. They had minutes of utter perfection, and destroyed themselves the other 59 minutes of the hour.

I agree. Both she and Karen Carpenter had heavenly voices.

Must . . . not . . . make . . . Cass Elliott/Karen Carpenter joke . . .

Cass Elliott could suck up Karen Carpenter like a spaghetti noodle.
Sorry - had to let it out.

I heard they played twins in a movie once.


They were a great group, one of the best of the post-folkie rock groups (like The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Wonderful harmonies, strong melodies, interesting personalities. I tend to think that Phillip’s best song, though, was “San Francisco,” written for his friend Scott MacKenzie (wonder where his daughter got her name?).

Absolutely beautiful harmonies, and Michelle Phillips is proof that some people make deals with Higher (or Lower) Powers. She was gorgeous when she was 20, and she has just gotten more and more beautiful as the years have gone by.

The “E! True Hollywood Story” one day, during a marathon a few months back, ran Mama Cass and Karen Carpenter back-to-back.