In March of 1966 four Folk Music performers, having left the confines of the Folk Music scene behind and dabbled in some Rock ‘N Roll, debuted their first Rock ‘N Roll record album. Of the twelve songs on this debut album, three had already aired as singles and been charted on the U.S. and British Rock Charts. The debut album was titled, “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”, and the name the band had chosen for themselves was The Mamas & the Papas.
I remember this record very well. It was the very first Rock ‘N Roll album my sister and I were ever allowed to purchase. And we didn’t purchase it for ourselves. We bought it as a gift for our Aunt Betsy - who was a mere decade older than we - and thus was acceptable to the powers that be in our home (Mom and Dad). For the times - the mid-60s - this was an innocuous album, full of harmonies and sweet melodies, displaying none of the drug-addled , alcohol-laced lyrics and guitar riffs of other bands of the era. Nor did it presage the difficulties the band would endure in their internal soap opera.
It is one of the best albums of its day, and it plays like a greatest hits compilation. Just look at the cuts from “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”:
- "Monday, Monday" - 3:27
- "Straight Shooter" - 3:27
- "Got a Feelin'" - 2:31
- "I Call Your Name" - 2:39
- "Do You Wanna Dance?" - 2:57
- "Go Where You Wanna Go" - 2:30
- "California Dreamin'" - 2:41
- "Spanish Harlem" - 3:21
- "Somebody Groovy" - 3:15
- "Hey Girl" - 2:27
- "You Baby" - 2:19
- "The 'In' Crowd" - 3:10
Not one is a clunker, though not all are big hits. Some are old songs given new life by a very talented band. Their version of “Spanish Harlem” is simply beautiful and atmospheric, “Do You Wanna Dance” is given a new spin from the Bobby Freeman original of 1958 and the Beach Boys version of 1965.
And “I Call Your Name” is perhaps the finest remake of a Beatles tune ever. In fact “I Call Your Name” comes off as a Honky-Tonk Bar song, with Cass Elliot singing the lead vocals to a piano and drum, until the band joins in for the refrains and backing harmonies. This is a song that shows what a talented group can do with a remake other than a watered-down version of the original. It’s also the first real explosion of Mama Cass’s vocal talents for the world outside of the Folk music circle. She’s superb.
How did they choose their name? They began as “The Magic Cyrcle” but decided they wanted something easier for fans to remember. From Denny Doherty’s website:
We repair to The Landmark Inn laden down with food and drink and many exotic potions with which to celebrate our good fortune. Cass cooks one of her specialties: Duck a l'orange and after fulsome amounts of whiskey, and brandy and wine and grass and, in a few cases, Seconals - we're all just lying around vegging out watching TV and discussing names for the group. "The New Journeymen" was not a handle that was going to hang on this outfit. John was pushing for "The Magic Cyrcle". Eech, but none of us could come up with anything better, then we switch the channel and, hey, it's the Hell's Angels on this talk show . . .
And the first thing we hear is: "Now hold on there, Hoss. Some people call our women cheap, but we just call them our Mamas." Cass jumped up: "Yeah ! I want to be a Mama." And Michelle is going: "We're the Mamas! We're the Mamas!" OK. I look at John. He's looking at me going : "The Papas ?" Problem solved. A toast ! To The Mamas and The Papas. Well, after many, many toasts Cass and John are passed out. [...]
This is a foursome sharpened by a few years of traveling and performing, finding a sound that fit their vocal talents well, and capturing the opportunity to record when it struck. These were not “over-night” sensations, but seasoned pros. Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty had been a part of “The Mugwumps”, which also included Zal Yanovsky who would become an integral part of “The Lovin’ Spoonful”. John Phillips started in the Folk Music scene with a trio called “The Journeymen”, developing his craft in Greenwich Village where he would meet Elliot and Doherty. While touring California with The Journeymen, Phillips met Michelle Gilliam who would become his second wife (1962 - 1970) and the fourth member of the original Mamas & the Papas. Kicked out of the band after her affair with Doherty was revealed, Michelle was re-signed two-and-a-half months later, her replacement, Jill Gibson, being paid off with a lump sum. As I said earlier, an “internal soap opera”. However, by the time of Michelle's return, the band had lost focus, momentum and direction. While trying to create another album, Elliot left the group, bringing about the end of The Mamas & the Papas.
A short, meteoric career.
John Phillips was the primary songwriter and musical arranger of The Mamas & the Papas. Early in the band's history, John and Michelle were responsible for writing most of the band's songs. John would often come up with a melody and some lyrics, and Michelle would help him complete the lyrical portion of the song. Doherty, a Canadian singer and songwriter, had a fine baritone voice. Cass Elliot - known to her fans always as Mama Cass - was perhaps the most vocally-talented member of the band. She went on to a very successful solo career recording nine albums of her own. Following the second of two sold-out performances at London’s Palladium - to standing ovations - Cass Elliot died in her hotel room of a heart attack on July 29, 1974. The night before she died, she had called Michelle in L.A. to tell her how happy thrilled she was about getting standing ovations at The Palladium. Michelle Phillips says that Mama Cass "died a very happy woman."
Denny Doherty died on January 19, 2007 at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, from kidney failure following surgery on an abdominal aneurysm. After surviving a liver transplant in the 1980s, John Phillips died of heart failure on March 18, 2001.
Michelle Phillips is the only surviving member of The Mamas & the Papas, and a successful actress.
The band existed for only a very short time, but they recorded some very fine music, and gave the world songs that survive to this day. They remain one of my favorite bands of the Rock Era. Here’s one of those debut album songs, “Got A Feelin’”. It’s sweet and pretty. Hopefully it will have loaded completely by the time you get here. Enjoy.
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