The Mamas and the Papas were the first group to be be completely integrated along gender lines. They were two women and two men. This had never been done before. There had been lots of groups which contained women, but never at a 50% rate.
The group, as you might guess, all come from a folk music background. John Phillips, born in 1935 in Parris Island, South Carolina grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. He was inspired by the actor Marlon Brando and liked to hang out on the streets and act “tough.” Soon, the kids he hung out with, were singing sidewalk doo-wop and he released he wanted to be a singer. After high school, he joined a folk group called The Journeymen which included another future hit maker, Scott McKenzie (“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair” which was written by John Phillips.)
Holly Michelle Gilliam was born in 1945 in Long Beach, California. She moved to San Francisco when she was just sixteen, intending to be a model. She met John at the “Hungry i,” while he was touring with the Journeymen and the two were married on December 31, 1962 after he got a divorce from his first wife. She was eighteen years old.
Dennis Doherty is the third member of the Mamas and Papas and he was born in 1940 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, making him the second oldest of the group and, also, the only Canadian. Dennis joined a local folk group called the Halifax Three and they went on tour in the United States that was associated with the television show “Hootenanny, U.S.A.” It was during this tour that the Halifax Three opened for the Journeymen and thus, he met John Phillips.
Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland. In High School, she started calling herself Cass, allegedly after actor Peggy Cass. Later, she took on the name Elliot after a personal friend who had died. It was also during High School that she became interested in acting and singing and appeared in several productions. She joined a group called the Big 3 in 1964 and when that broke up, joined The Mugwumps, a folk group which included Dennis Doherty and John Sebastian who would later be the lead singer of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
The four came together in 1964, first John and Michelle formed a new group called The New Journeymen. They asked Dennis to join and then there were three. Dennis wanted to bring Cass in, but John didn’t feel she fit with the rest of the group. She was heavy and he felt her temperament was incompatible with his. But, he reluctantly gave in. They were going to call themselves Magic Cyrcle, but then they saw a documentary on television about the motorcycle group, The Hell’s Angels. Those guys called their women “mamas.” So, The Mamas and the Papas were born.
Their first single to chart was “California Dreamin” which reached number four. Then they released “Monday Monday,” written by John, which was their only number one song. The Mamas and the Papas had a great influence on American music in the Sixties, even though they were not that prolific. They were only together until 1968 and had ten Top 40 hits. They broke up in 1968 and then briefly reunited in 1971.
Mama Cass went solo after the breakup and is best known for “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” a number twelve song in 1968. Unfortunately she got into drugs and had a pretty serious heroin problem for a while. On April 22, 1974, just before she was to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, she collapsed backstage and couldn’t go on. She went home to London where she lived and on July 29, 1974, she passed away in her sleep. The autopsy said the death was due to obesity and that there were no drugs in her system. She was 32 years old.
“Monday Monday” entered the pop charts on April 16, 1966 and spent three weeks at number one. The Mamas and Papas never had another number one.