California Dreamin’ With The Mamas & the Papas

California Dreamin' by The Mamas & the Papas

In a ’60s kind of mood of late, we’ve been listening to hippy counterculture hits and all that. The Mamas & the Papas were a folk rock vocal band from LA (of California) that formed in 1965.

The band’s California Dreamin’ hit single shoved the band into the limelight, particularly for its powerful backing singers Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips.

We caught up with the song over the last few weeks to dig around it, the band, its members, and see what we could make of everything.

All the Leaves Are Brown and the California Dreamin’

The Mamas & the Papas formed after guitarist and songwriter John Philips (1935-2001) and his wife Michelle Philips left The New Journeymen.

Canadian Denny Dohery (1940-2007) then left the bizarrely named Mugwumps, bringing with him Cass Elliot (soon to be called “Mama Cass”).

Armed with a powerhouse backing vocal force, the band really stood out. And those two alone helped make the band, really, it’s them we always think of (sorry to diminish everyone else involved!) when this song crops up.

John and Michelle Philips wrote what would become their breakout hit song, actually in 1963 when they were living in New York. A freezing cold winter inspired them, as they were missing California (where it’s sunny a lot of the time, apparently).

But it was an American Christian singer, Barry McGuire, who recorded the song first on the album This Precious Time.

This was as thanks after McGuire helped the band get a recording contract with Dunhill Records.

Realising its potential, The Mamas & the Papas then re-recorded it on the 4th November 1965, with Denny Doherty’s lead vocals added in, and a psychedelic instrumental added in the mid-section. It was then released as a single on December 8th 1965.

California Dreamin’ has some terrific lyrics in it. Check this out:

All the leaves are brown,
And the sky is gray,
I’ve been for a walk,
On a winter’s day,
I’d be safe and warm,
If I was in L.A.

California dreamin’,
On such a winter’s day.

Stopped into a church,
I passed along the way,
Well, I got down on my knees,
And I pretend to pray,
You know the preacher like the cold,
He knows I’m gonna stay.

Instantly memorable and crystal clear, it really evokes the image of crisp, chilly autumn days. But, like with many listeners, we can’t help but doff our caps to Philips and Elliot—the band’s supreme backing vocalists.

We first heard this song when it had a brief appearance on Forrest Gump (1994) and it was immediately very appealing to our nine-year-old brains.

Since then, we’ve really taken to those operatic backing harmonies that populate many a psychedelic number. The Who, The Stone Roses, The Beach Boys—they all recognised their potential and used them liberally (like, check out The Stone Roses’ Waterfall).

California Dreamin’ is, of course, now quite legendary and one of the most iconic tunes of the Swinging Sixties.

But it wasn’t a massive commercial hit (going against what popular legend would suggest).

Only after a radio station in Boston started playing it on a loop did it gain some traction. But it didn’t reach #1 in the singles charts, peaking instead at #4 in the US and #3 in Canada. In the UK it reached #23. Randomly, we also know in Australia it hit #87 in the charts, whilst New Zealand sent it up to #14.

Still, it was enough to make The Mamas & the Papas a leading force in the hippy counterculture movement of the Sixties, alongside the likes of The Doors.

The One and Only Live Performance of California Dreamin’ We Could Find

Right, we could only find one live performance of this with the band singing properly. Most other performances are mimed on TV shows, which seemed to annoy the band as they just stand around larking about.

Instead, the above clip is from the famous Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. That one with the famous performances from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and sass specialist Janis Joplin.

However, the clip shows The Mamas & the Papas were an excellent live band (being drummers, we couldn’t help but note the guy playing is very bloody good—possibly Hal Blaine, as the band didn’t seem to have a regular drummer).

Also, Michelle Philips’ mic isn’t working, unfortunately, so you only get one half of the backing vocals. But it’s peak hippy era, counterculture glory.

Even if half the audience looks stoned senseless and probably couldn’t remember anything later. Far out, man.

A Bit About Cass Elliot

During our random research on the band, Cass Elliot piqued our interest a great deal. Real name Ellen Naomi Cohen, the singer was born in September 1941.

Interviewed by British TV presenter Russell Harty (1934-1988) above, it’s revealed at the start she had an IQ of 160. Highly intelligent, she was also very witty. We laughed several times in the above clip with her clever putdowns and the like.

But she was also clearly empathetic, taking an interest in politics to try and alleviate the poverty crisis in America.

Wow, we’re sure glad things have changed since 1972…

Unfortunately, Elliot also struggled with her weight throughout her life. She had numerous crash diets, before putting weight back on again. This led to her early death on July 29th, 1974, due to heart failure. She was only 32.

Elliot was living in London at the time, in singer Harry Nilsson’s flat in Mayfair at Curzon Place. Bizarrely, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon ended up renting the same flat in autumn 1978 after a chaotic spell living in America.

And he died in exactly the same room as Elliot.

We must note she was a powerful personality to achieve what she did, against body shaming and the like.

Cass struggled to join The Mamas & the Papas, as John Philips was worried her vocal range was too low. Additionally, he wasn’t happy about her weight as he felt that could block the band’s overall possibility of success.

This wasn’t helped as her co-backing singer, Michelle Philips, was conventionally model worthy attractive—stick thin, blonde, and pretty. Philips is a fine soprano singer in her own right, but in the music industry conventional looks do count.

Happily, Elliot was able to overcome these issues and be a trailblazing force. She more than proved her worth with her style, intellect, and talent.

After The Mamas & the Papas split in 1968 after a tumultuous, brief history she wanted to ditch her Mama Cass image. Her solo career was taking off in 1974 and she was, apparently, over the moon about that and in very high spirits.

But she started suffering health issues in early 1974 (not helped by alleged drug use), which led to her sudden death during her sleep. A sudden and sad end.

But we want to close with this quote from her in October 1968, from an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine. Which we think sums up her observant view of the music industry and the nature of fame:

“Everything I’ve learned in life I’ve learned either by doing it or watching the changes other people go through. And when you’re famous, you don’t get to meet people–because they want you to like them and they present themselves to you, present the best sides of themselves, and you don’t see the real people. Which is why I don’t really go anywhere. And when I do, I put on my silly face and do what they expect me to do. Actually, I never do what they expect me to do. It’s the only way I could go on doing what I have to do. I do whatever I … you know, I didn’t even comb my hair today. I didn’t know we were taking pictures, but when I found out, it didn’t change my mind any. Interview vérité.”


Dispense with some gibberish!

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