The Mamas and The Papas: How the group’s harmonies were a huge hit

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The Mamas & The Papas

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Back in the ’60s, The Mamas and The Papas were no ordinary band or singing group — they had that certain extra something that made sure their sound would stand the test of time.

Here’s a look back at the story of the magical music made by Cass Elliot, Michelle Philips, Denny Doherty and John Phillips.

These are the Mamas and the Papas (1966)

LIFE – January 30, 1966

The skinny blonde, model-looking one is Michelle — Michelle Phillips. The hefty one with the full-moon face and knuckle-shield rings is Cass Elliott.

Until a year ago they were very very poor. Now they are rich, and getting richer, for they constitute one half of the Mamas and the Papas, the most inventive pop musical group around and the first really new vocal sound since The Beatles.

In their first album, the cover photograph showed the wildly diverse foursome — the girls and the two “Papas” — crammed into a bathtub.

Mamas and Papas album - If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

The sound inside was a close weaving of folk and rock, with a trace of the blues and now and then a moment of Stan Kenton’s dissonant modernism.

The album title, appropriately enough: “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.”

A musky tenor usually sang the lead, crowded underneath by a rich contralto. Hovering nearby were a knowing baritone and a clear, true soprano, seemingly going separate ways but sliding together on songs like “Monday, Monday,” with intricate modulations and harmonies.

Within six months, the Mamas and the Papas were at the top of the charts. Their personal appearances this summer were sell-outs.

They will soon leave on a tour of Europe where the Beatles have promised to write them some new songs — only if they return the favor.

The Mamas and the Papas group 1966 (5)

The perfectionists of The Mamas and The Papas

The two Papas, Denny Doherty, left, and John Phillips, listen to a playback at a recording studio. Perfectionists, they often spend 20 hours at a time in the studio.

“We know when a session is over because Cass turns green,” says John. “We say ‘Cass is green, that’s all for today.'”

The group waits in a Chicago suite (second from top) for champagne which they order after a concert.

Recording their second album, which had enough advance sales to guarantee a gold record before its release, Cass sings “Words of Love.”

A few years back, she worked in a club with a singer named Barbra Streisand. “Barbra wouldn’t speak to me then,” remembers Cass.

“Maybe she knew she was going to be a big star. Well, I knew I was going to be a big star, too, and I would have talked to her. Boy, if I ever meet her in Bergdorf’s now!”

The Mamas and the Papas group 1966 (3)


The Mamas & The Papas – California Dreamin’


Mamas & Papas Saturday Evening Post cover (1967)

The Mamas and the Papas - Post magazine cover (1967)


Mamas and Papas living it up: Folk rock group relaxing before having a go-go at movies

By Linda Gable – St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) April 28, 1967

THE MAMAS and the Papas, who have scaled the heights of the recording industry in little more than a year, are enjoying a brief respite before trying to make their mark in the movies.

Cassandra Elliot — Cass to folk-singing fans around the world — visited London. John and Michelle Phillips took a break in San Francisco, and Dennis Doherty went to see the sights of Mexico.

But each member of the group is thinking about the movie they hope to make soon. “They’re very creative people,” said a spokesman, “and they are trying to create a movie in which they would feel comfortable.”

MORE: Michelle Phillips talked about Mamas & Papas and her movie, Dillinger (1973)

The current affluence and stature of the Mamas and the Papas is a far cry from the near-poverty conditions under which they lived a year ago.

Today they think nothing of chartering a jet plane at a moment’s notice, zipping around Hollywood in a $19,000 cranberry-colored Aston-Martin sports car, and living in mansions once owned by actresses Mary Astor and Jeanette MacDonald.

The Mamas and The Papas performance 1967

SINCE combining their talents into the Mamas and the Papas while beachcombing in the Virgin Islands, the four young swingers have amassed a fortune, and collected three of the top awards popular music can bestow.

Billboard and Cashbox magazines named the group’s recording of “‘Monday, Monday,” the top single of the year, and on March 2, the group received a Grammy award for the same song from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences — equivalent to the movie industry’s Oscar and television’s Emmy.

ALSO SEE: About The Foundations: The ’60s band behind ‘Baby, Now That I’ve Found You’ and ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’

Four of their records have sold more than 1,000,000 copies each, including “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreamin'” and two albums: “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” and “John, Michelle, Cass and Denny.”

The Mamas and The Papas

How did The Mamas and The Papas begin?

Their musical careers crossed in New York in 1965 when Dennis was working with the Mugwumps, a folk group.

He met Cass, who originally sang with a folk group called the Big Three. John, who was singing with the Journeymen, met Michelle Gilliam, and after they were married, Michelle joined the group.

Everything folded about the same time, so John, Michelle and Dennis went to the Virgin Islands. They spent a summer camping on the beach, and discovered that Cass was working as a waitress on the same island.

It was there that the format of the Mamas and the Papas was formed. The government of St. Thomas Island asked the group to leave because they weren’t contributing to the economy — so they returned to New York.

The Mamas and the Papas group 1966 (2)

By this time, John had written “California Dreamin.'” Instead of dreaming, the four bought a car and drove to California where they rented a house in Hollywood and lived and sang together, hand-to-mouth.

ALSO SEE: Creedence Clearwater Revival was the richest, most successful pop-rock group in the world in 1971

Their fortune changed when they met singer Barry McGuire. He introduced the group to Lou Adler, a record producer, who reportedly flipped and gave the Mamas and the Papas a $5000 advance.

“California Dreamin’ was recorded, and started the group on its way to becoming America’s foremost folk-rock group.

STANDING room only is the word when the Mamas and the Papas appear in concert. They have toured all over the United States and are extremely popular at colleges.

When Carnegie Hall was a sell-out, they went into a second show.

The Mamas & The Papas - Indianapolis concert May 1967

At one point last year, Michelle and John separated, and Jill Gibson replaced Michelle in the group. When the two were reunited, they had to re-record the entire second album.

John and Michelle have no children, and live in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The home, which once belonged to Jeannette MacDonald, houses their collection of antiques which features music boxes and musical instruments of all sorts.

They like to travel, but prefer to stay at home when in town. Occasionally the pair may be seen at the Daisy Club or Whiskey A-Go-Go.

Dennis, described as the “quiet funny one” of the group, bought an old house atop Laurel canyon which once belonged to Mary Astor.

The Mamas and the Papas group 1966 (4)

ALSO SEE: Woodstock: What people said the famous music festival was REALLY like (1969)


The Mamas & The Papas – Monday Monday

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