The MAMAS and the PAPAS – ” A Small History “

Posted: May 6, 2017 in MUSIC
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There was a melancholy guitar, and then the vocals came in: “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.” That was the beginning of the song “California Dreamin” the song that introduced most people to the Mamas and the Papas at the end of 1965. It was a lovely thing, filled with musical uplift and emotional longing. It was kind of like folk music—or what people that year were calling “folk-rock”—and a little bit like earlier L.A. soft-pop, with a tinge of pre-rock harmony groups. But it was original: the Bud Shank flute solo, the assertive drums of Hal Blaine, the responsive female vocals echoing the lead singer like sirens bidding him west. “I’d be safe and warm,” the singer thinks, “if I was in L.A.”

What the Mamas and the Papas did, like the Beach Boys, was create an idea about the West Coast as a state of mind. It wasn’t so much what the songs said; it was more about the pastel sound, the sense of openness and wistfulness. The music was a beckoning, the promise of a place where everyone was high and free. The cultural impact of this oddly configured quartet was tremendous. You can easily imagine what producer Lou Adler thought when he first auditioned them, saw the physical incongruity of these two guys and two girls, heard the intricate, delicate harmonies and John Phillips‘ batch of original songs: who are these people? Where does something like this come from?

Later, Adler wondered about the group’s tangled history, so John Phillips and his wife, Michelle, wrote a song about it, “Creeque Alley” , to map out how they and the other Papa and Mama, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, crossed paths and came together. The first line explains that the Phillipses were “gettin’ kinda itchy just to leave the folk music behind,” so you might begin there, at the peak of the folk-revival boomlet of the early 1960s. All four members of the group were part of that scene, as you can hear on the compilation ‘The Magic Circle—Before They Were the Mamas & the Papas’. John, after being a part of the bland pop group the Smoothies (they’d had a couple of nondescript singles on Decca), formed a folk trio called the Journeymen, made a few albums for Capitol, and appeared on the TV show Hootenanny! Around the same time, ’63-ish, Denny Doherty was in a similar group, the Halifax Three, on Epic, cutting the usual folkie stuff as well as novelty material in the vein of the Chad Mitchell Trio. And Cass Elliot was in the Big 3, who cut two albums on the small FM label. Then John met Michelle, and she became a member of the New Journeymen with Phillips and Marshall Brickman, a trio that was in every possible way a copy of Peter, Paul and Mary.

For a while, Doherty and Elliot were in a proto-folk-rock-group, the Mugwumps, who cut a batch of sides, including the Coasters’ Searchin and the Fiestas’  So Fine . The Mugwumps‘ guitarist, Zal Yanovsky, and another Greenwich Village pal, John Sebastian, started the Lovin’ Spoonful; Phillips heard what they were up to, figured out pretty quickly that the whole New Journeymen experiment was doomed (they’d done a demo of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” that was hopelessly square compared to the Byrds‘ version), and that he should catch the folk-rock train. If that looks like a simple marketplace calculation, it probably was. Like Paul Simon, Phillips was savvy enough to jump on whatever was current, and so as Simon went from knocking out formula pop demos to becoming an earnest young troubadour, Phillips realized the smart creative investment was in rock, or at least rock-ish, futures.

He recruited Denny, and the rest of the story—how Cass got on board—you can follow in “Creeque Alley.” It’s one thing to understand, pragmatically, that a shift in direction was well advised. It’s another to put the plan into operation. So it was lucky that the new group knew Barry McGuire, who had been a singer in the New Christy Minstrels and was now out in California cutting records with producer Lou Adler for Dunhill Records, including P.F. Sloan’s Eve Of Destruction . The quartet got an audience with Adler, who was dazzled, and they sang background vocals on the second McGuire album, This Precious Time. One of the tracks cut for that album was Phillips’s “California Dreamin’,” which Sloan says in his memoir was in embryonic form. He takes credit for whipping the song into shape by incorporating a guitar lick from the Ventures’ Walk, Don’t Run, and for playing the song’s famous introduction. The backing group on the session included bassist Joe Osborn, keyboard player Larry Knechtel, and drummer Hal Blaine. In Blaine’s book, Michelle admits “Our group had never sung with anything but an acoustic guitar until that fateful day in 1965 when we came together in Studio 3 at Western Recorders. There, the Mamas and the Papas‘ ‘sound’ was created with the distinctive beat that Hal Blaine already made himself famous for.”

That “sound” was the key. Sloan writes, “We needed to find a mic that worked magic for their voices, and the perfect echo and reverb for them. Without it, their voices didn’t seem to fly.” You can hear it on the first Mamas and Papas single, Go Where You Wanna Go, which inexplicably failed to catch on when it was released on Dunhill (another group, the 5th Dimension, did better with it), on their “California Dreamin’,” which used the same backing track as the one on McGuire’s LP version, but with overdubbed M&P lead vocals, on the follow-up smash single “Monday, Monday” and the collection of songs on their debut album, “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears ” .

It wasn’t an approach that came out of nowhere: groups like the Seekers, the Silkie, and the We Five were blending male and female voices on folkish material, and you can hear a precedent for the Mamas and Papas in the two-girls-one-boy diaphanous teen pop of the Fleetwoods (Come Softly to Me, Mr. Blue; they made an album called ‘Folk Rock in ’65’), and in the records Phil Spector made with the Teddy Bears (To Know Him Is to Love Him).

But this was ingeniously wrapped up and redesigned; it sounded “now.” Adler knew how to make pop records; he’d been doing it since the late ’50s with Jan & Dean, and then with Johnny Rivers, and he knew the best players in L.A. But this was more than just a richly textured, professionally executed sound. The “eyes” part of your eyes and ears mattered a lot; they didn’t look like any other singing group, and photos of them, most taken by Guy Webster, were studies in contrasts, angles and circles: Michelle sprawled across the other three in a bathtub on the front cover of the debut album, Denny and Michelle looking like a couple on the back, John hovering sideways above them, Cass off to the side, separated from the other three by liner notes and credits.


For a while, Michelle was fooling around with Denny (the guys cowrote I Saw Her Again about that situation), whom Cass was enamored with, and if all that weren’t enough, Michelle started seeing Gene Clark from the Byrds (Gene supposedly wrote She Don’t Care About Time about her), and for a while was exiled from the group. She was replaced by Jill Gibson, who was going out with Adler (and had been dating Jan Berry from Jan & Dean, . Gibson was announced as the new Mama, and started to record the second album with the group, then called ‘Crashon Screamon All Fall Down’ (there’s an album cover with that title and Jill’s photo floating around).

Meanwhile, John was writing a number of songs about women who were romantically reckless and the men who were dumb enough to fall for their bewitchery, addressing either the girl or the guy from a position of someone who’s wised-up and/or bitter. So it was almost cruel to bring Michelle back into the group and have her sing (there’s some question about whether some of the tracks still have Jill’s vocals on them) on songs like No Salt On Her Tail (“No cage to make her stay”), the Michelle co-written Trip Stumble and Fall (“You’ve never been burned but everybody’s somebody’s fool”), I Can’t Wait (“Can’t wait to hear you say that you love me and you’ll change your ways”), “Even If I Could” (“Now you know just why I cried when she lied”) and That Kind of Girl (“She’s freaking out somewhere and you think it’s unfair/Well don’t be so square”). Even the jaunty, old-timey hit Words of Love was pretty cynical:

The album that ended up being called just The Mamas and the Papas also includes the mysterious Strange Young Girls , a snapshot of the L.A.—L.S.D. scene that’s one of the first pop songs to explicitly mention tripping on acid, Despite (because of?) the turmoil going on during its inception and recording, it’s the best of the group’s original four LPs, and along with Pet Sounds, the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, and Love’s debut album (and some might add The Monkees , it’s on the shortlist of albums that capture the sound of Southern California in 1966, the year before the center of the West Coast music scene moved up the coast around 400 miles to the Bay Area, a gravitational shift that John Phillips and Lou Adler had a major role in accelerating when they decided to throw a big celebration of pop music in Monterey, California, in June 1967.

In ’67, the Mamas and the Papas were pop royalty. John’s songs, especially his first two hits, were being covered across the spectrum, for which the group was a financial godsend,  And they continued to have hit singles, all included on their third album, Deliver released in February of ’67: “Creeque Alley.” The song about the history of the group was on the charts as the Monterey International Pop Festival came together, and so was a song that Phillips wrote and produced for one of his former Journeymen, Scott McKenzie, the beatifically oh-so-groovy San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair): “All across the nation,” McKenzie marveled, “such a strange vibration, people in motion.”  Adler and Phillips formed an all-star advisory board to invite artists to play the Monterey fest, and the lineup included proven hit-makers (Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, Johnny Rivers). The committee also reached out to a newer cluster of bands from San Francisco (Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead…), soul titan Otis Redding, and, making their U.S. debuts, the Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Mamas and the Papas, naturally, would be the headliners, closing out the last night. Well, that idea made sense, because who was bigger than they were? . By the time the Mamas and Papas‘ set time arrived on Sunday, audiences had seen Janis Joplin with Big Brother (there’s a famous shot in the movie Monterey Pop showing Cass in the audience, open-mouthed with admiration), Otis with Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Who in full instrument-smashing glory, Jefferson Airplane. Oh, and the Mamas and the Papas had to follow the Jimi Hendrix Experience, after Hendrix molested his guitar and set it on fire.

Michelle, in the Monterey chronicle A Perfect Haze by Harvey Kubernick and Kenneth Kubernick: “We had not rehearsed or performed together in three months. It was very awkward. And, of course, we did the concert, and I knew things were not going well, or great, but the mood of the audience was so good and happy that they bent for us. I know when I came offstage I just cried and cried for two hours.” It’s not that awful, really. A bit of a sonic shambles, and the band interaction feels strained. Probably because of the lack of pre-show prep time, the set is nearly entirely songs from the debut album, plus McKenzie doing his love-and-flowers serenade, and a concluding with “Dancing In The Street” (which mostly serves to underline how odd it is for a music festival in 1967 not to have any actual Motown artists). When they leave the stage, it’s like they’re waving goodbye.

They still had a couple of masterworks in them, Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon), and Safe in My Garden, both on the spotty final (for a while) album The Papas and the Mamas (also on that one, Cass singing the Depression-er “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” . But anyone could see that the original foursome was doomed. Everyone scattered for the usual post-breakup round of projects: John Phillips‘ album on ‘Dunhill’ is very good,  Cass had some fizzy pop hits, and made an LP with Dave Mason, but never found the right musical formula before her death in 1974 . Denny’s first solo album came and went without causing any kind of stir.

However unremarkable the postscript of the Mamas and Papas‘ career was, and unseemly the gossip about John Phillips‘ personal life . You play their records, and they’re still transporting. Like “Twelve Thirty.” It starts, “I used to live in New York City/Everything there was dark and dirty.” It’s like a bookend to “California Dreamin’,” a flashback to how the journey started. The music is streaked with sunlight, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness. In the end, it all comes apart.


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