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The Mamas & the Papas and the Drama That Unfolded For The Legendary Musicians

Only one of the members is still living, find out what she's said about her counterparts!

With harmonies as warm and soothing as the sunshine they longed for in “California Dreamin’,” The Mamas & the Papas became the darlings of the folk-rock music scene in the mid 60s. As Paul Evans wrote for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, their brilliant pop arrangements had chord changes that “echoed in sophistication those of the classic American songbook (the Gershwins, Cole Porter, et al.), [and] The Mamas and the Papas elevated Sixties Top Forty radio by offering a joyous something for everyone.”

Band smiling backstage
The Mamas and the Papas (1967) Icon and Image / Contributor / Getty

When members John and Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty — musicians who’d all played in other bands, sometimes with each other — formed their group in the mid 60s, they named themselves after watching a Hells Angels member on a talk show defending the club’s females from accusations that they were loose and vulgar.

“Some people call our women cheap, but we just call them our mamas,” the Angel said, according to Michelle Phillips in her 1986 memoir, California Dreamin’. “It was at that point that Cass jumped up and said, ‘Ah! We are Mamas. I don’t know who you guys are, but Michelle and I are the Mamas.’ … [So] The Mamas and the Papas we were.”

And they were soon off and running, releasing three albums between 1966 and 1967, and scoring six top-five five hits along the way, including “California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” “I Saw Her Again,” “Words of Love,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “Creeque Alley.” As Elliot told Rolling Stone in 1968, “The unique thing about music [is] that if you are good you can always create a place for yourself.… If you’re making good music, man, there’s so much room.… That was my feeling behind the Mamas and Papas.  When I heard us sing together the first time… we knew, we KNEW… this is it.”

Band at an awards show; The Mamas and the Papas
The Mamas and the Papas at the Grammys (1967) Donaldson Collection / Contributor / Getty

In 1967, they won the Best Contemporary (R&R) Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental Grammy for “Monday, Monday,” which was their only No. 1 hit, but friction and creative differences within the group were already causing problems. They included issues between John and Michelle, who was booted out of the group for a few months in 1966 largely in part to her marital indiscretions. In her memoir, she reveals that “I Saw Her Again” was “the song John and Denny wrote following the former’s discovery of me with the latter.”

Michelle’s unique contribution to their sound was too good to lose, however, and she was soon reinstated, though the band as a whole had some stops and starts in the coming years. After their Papas & the Mamas album came out in 1968, Elliot’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” track off of it was released by the label as a single under her name only, which irked John.

“I felt stung and insulted,” he admitted in his 1986 memoir, Papa John. “We had lost the touch. Our time had come and gone. That’s what [the label] must have presumed,” he added. “Cass finally had the solo acclaim she had craved so long. I could hardly blame her, but it was hard not to feel resentful and depressed.”

To fulfill contractual obligations, the quartet recorded 1971’s People Like Us and “the sessions were efficient but perfunctory,” admitted John, who says he had to fake the harmonies due to them rarely recording together. “The elegance, the fire, the graceful union of our voices were long gone.”

Band at an awards show; The Mamas and the Papas
The Mamas and the Papas at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction (1998) JON LEVY / Staff / Getty

The impact they made on the music world in their three short years together is indisputable, however. As Shania Twain noted while inducting them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “By 1971, I was wearing out my 8-track tape of their music.… I was 6 years old and mesmerized by the beauty and serenity of their vocal arrangements and their utterly original musical style.” Other famous fans who have covered their songs include Queen Latifah, Diana Krall, Sia, and The Carpenters, among others.

For fans old and new, the music of The Mamas & the Papas will live forever (especially now that we don’t have to rely on 8-tracks). Read on to find out more about what The Mamas & the Papas got up to after the band split up.

John Phillips

John Phillips; The Mamas and the Papas
1966/1998 Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty // Robin Platzer/Twin Images / Contributor / Getty

A fixture of New York’s Greenwich Village music scene in the late 50s, John dabbled in doo-wop before landing in The Journeymen, a folk outfit, before rising to fame with The Mamas & the Papas. Solo pursuits followed The Mamas & the Papas’ breakup, including 1970’s country-influenced John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.). He also worked on songs and scores for films such as Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the latter of which starred David Bowie.

The musician’s foray into staged musicals, 1975’s Man on the Moon (produced off-Broadway by Andy Warhol) missed its mark, and the 70s were a rough decade for John as his drug and heroin use was getting out of hand, resulting in an arrest in 1980 that led to some jail time and a stint in rehab.

Later in the 80s, he started a new lineup of The Mamas & the Papas, which included original member Denny Doherty, as well as John’s daughter Mackenzie Phillips, and Elaine McFarlane of the band Spanky and Our Gang. They started performing in 1982, but rampant drug and alcohol issues lead to inconsistent output and several changes to the group’s lineup, and the new Mamas & the Papas called it quits in 1998.

During that time, John co-wrote the hit “Kokomo” with The Beach Boys, and in 1986 he released his page-turning Papa John, a tell-all memoir about the crazy highs and turbulent lows of The Mamas & the Papas.

After John, then 65, passed away from heart failure on March 18, 2001, two albums of his — Pay Pack & Follow and Phillips 66 — were posthumously released. Pay Pack & Follow had been recorded in the 70s and featured musical collaborations with The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

Along with daughter Mackenzie (who, in her 2009 memoir, alleged she’d been sexually assaulted by her father, though she’s spoken of “having forgiveness in my heart” in recent years), John left behind daughters Chynna Phillips (a member of the pop trio Wilson Phillips) and actress Bijou Phillips, of Almost Famous fame. He also left behind fourth wife Farnaz Arasteh, as well as two sons, Jeffrey and Tamerlane.

MUST-READ: Wilson Phillips: What the Talented ’90s Vocal Trio Is Up to Now

Michelle Phillips

Michelle Phillips; The Mamas and the Papas
1960/2024 Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty // Jeff Kravitz / Contributor / Getty

Michelle holds the distinction of being the only native Californian in the group known for their “California Dreamin’.” In fact, the song was inspired by a trip to New York that she and John took after they got married, which was the first time she had seen snow. Her longing for the Golden State’s sunshine eventually led to The Mamas & the Papas’ smash hit.

After the group’s split, Michelle released a 1977 solo album called Victim of Romance, though she was always aware her vocals were not as strong as Cass Elliot’s, so she shifted paths to acting, having dabbled in it while still with the group. She went on to star in such films as The Last Movie, Valentino, Dillinger, American Anthem, and Let It Ride, and her string of work on television includes roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hotel, Knots Landing, and Beverly Hills, 90210.

In 1986, the same year her ex-husband John released his revealing memoir, Michelle released hers: California Dreamin. One LA Times review likened reading both of them to “reading the transcripts in a divorce trial.”

There have been reports that Michelle is planning on making a biopic of the turbulent history of The Mamas & the Papas. “Now, mercifully, John is dead,” she told Rolling Stone in 2022. “So he can’t stand in the way of me doing it, and neither can Denny [Doherty]. Once you’ve taken the knife out of your heart, it makes for a wonderful story.”

Cass Elliot in The Mamas and The Papas

Cass Elliot
1960/1970 RB / Staff / Getty // Donaldson Collection / Contributor / Getty

That voice! Cass Elliot had been in a New York folk group called The Mugwumps with Denny Doherty before the two later teamed up with John and Michelle Phillips. Considered the strongest vocalist in The Mamas & the Papas, it’s no surprise that Mama Cass Elliot went on to enjoy success on her own after the group disintegrated. She released five solo albums between 1968 and 1973, with 1968’s Dream a Little Dream of Me being her most successful.

In 1969, she hosted The Mama Cass Television Program on ABC, which featured the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, Joni Mitchell, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Sammy Davis Jr. Then in 1973, she headlined TV’s Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore special, which shared a title with her final solo album. Guest stars on that program included Dick Van Dyke, Michelle Phillips, and Joel Grey. Also in 1973, she made an animated appearance on Scooby-Doo, which Warner Brothers home entertainment released on video in 2019.

Sadly, the talented vocalist died from heart failure at age 32 on July 29, 1974. Her only child, daughter Owen Vanessa Elliot, joined The Mamas & the Papas band members at the group’s 1988 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in her mother’s honor.

The 1996 British film Beautiful Thing paid homage to the songstress, featuring a teen girl obsessed with Mama Cass and her work in The Mamas & the Papas. Its soundtrack is filled with the band’s hits, as well as solo efforts from Elliot, including “It’s Getting Better,” “One Way Ticket,” “California Earthquake,” “Welcome to the World,” and the triumphant “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” which has been making its own kind of impact on TikTok since 2023, being used in thousands of viral posts. “It’s the coolest thing I could possibly even conceptualize,” daughter Owen told Rolling Stone.

Denny Doherty in The Mamas and The Papas

Denny Doherty; The Mamas and the Papas
1970/2001 Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty // Getty Images / Staff / Getty

The Canadian musician spent his early days playing in The Halifax Three (with future Lovin’ Spoonful member Zal Yanovsky). He then moved on to join The Mugwumps, which also featured Cass Elliot, before they both joined John and Michelle Phillips in the New Journeymen, which, of course, became The Mamas & the Papas.

After the band’s split, he released a few solo efforts, including 1971’s Whatcha Gonna Do and 1974’s Waiting for a Song, which featured Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot on backing vocals. It’s believed to be the latter’s final recording sessions before her untimely death.

Doherty soon turned his focus toward acting, appearing in John Phillips’ not-so-well-received musical Man on the Moon, as well as some Shakespearean works back home in Nova Scotia. In 1978, he landed a short-lived stint hosting the Denny’s Sho variety program on Canadian TV, and he also did some voicework for children’s programming.

The musician, who got sober in the 80s, was thrilled to be inducted into Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1996. He also performed in Dream a Little Dream, the Nearly True Story of the Mamas & the Papas, a semi-autobiographical stage show he co-wrote, which played in Canada before briefly moving to New York in the early 2000s.

Doherty died at age 66 on Jan. 19, 2007, from kidney failure after surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He left behind three children, daughters Jessica and Emberly and son John.

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