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Thursday, 19 September 2013

Remembering Mama Cass Elliot

Today would have been the birthday of Mama Cass Elliot. She was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore on 19th September 1941.

Her first recording was with a group called The Big 3 in 1963.

When Tim Rose left The Big Three in 1964 the remaining members (Cass and James Hendricks) teamed up with Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty from Canada and John B. Sebastian to form The Mugwumps. In their 8 months together released one album (only 9 songs were recorded in 1964 and the album would be released in 1967 after the members of the band had success with other bands).

Sebastian and Yanovsky would go on to form The Lovin' Spoonful, Hendricks didn't achieve great fame but quitely gained success as a performer and songwriter of note (word is that he has released more tha 50 albums of American Folk, Mountain, Gospel and Western Music). Cass would perform as a solo artist for a brief period and Denny Doherty would join The New Journeymen that featured John and Michelle Phillips who of course would end up inviting Cass to join them and then they became The Mamas and The Papas in 1965.

According to Denny Doherty it was Cass who had the inspiration to name the band The Mamas and The Papas:

"We're all just lying around vegging out watching TV and discussing names for the group. The New Journeymen was not a handle that was going to hang on this outfit. John was pushing for The Magic Cyrcle. Eech, but none of us could come up with anything better, then we switch the channel and, hey, it's the Hells Angels on the Carson show... And the first thing we hear is: "Now hold on there, Hoss. Some people call our women cheap, but we just call them our Mamas." Cass jumped up: "Yeah! I want to be a Mama." And Michelle is going: "We're the Mamas! We're the Mamas!" OK. I look at John. He's looking at me going: "The Papas?" Problem solved. A toast! To The Mamas and the Papas. Well, after many, many toasts, Cass and John are passed out."

The first single release was 'Go Where You Wanna Go' in 1965 but it failed to chart. Their big breakthrough came via Barry McGuire. He recorded a version of 'California Dreamin' for his album 'This Precious Time' that had The Mamas and Papas on backing vocals. They then recorded their own version of the song using the same instrumental and vocal backing track to which they added new vocals. Although the single was released in September 1965 it was not an immediate hit and it would take until March the following year before it finally broke and reached #4 in the charts.

Their debut album followed on from the success of Califonia Dreamin', released in March 1966 it would become a #1 on the U.S. Billboard Charts (and a #3 on the UK Charts). The original cover for the album featured a toilet where the scroll with featured song titles is on the above picture. The toilet was declared as 'indecent'! Here's the original cover:

The follow-up single 'Monday Monday' gave them their only #1 (they did have a further four U.S. Top Ten Hits: 'I Saw Her Again', 'Words of Love', 'Dedicated to the One I Love' and 'Creeque Alley').

Straight Shooter Documentary. (This has been highly edited due to copyright issues but there's enough still there to get a picture of the story of the band).

Monterey Pop Festival 1967.
Got A Feelin'

The Mamas and Papas broke up in 1968 (they would reform again in 1971, releasing a final album together 'People Like Us' - Michelle Phillips said that it sounded like what it was "four people trying to avoid a lawsuit" - which they had to do in order to avoid a breach of contract charge against them).

Cass meanwhile had released her first solo single (released as Mama Cass with The Mamas and the Papas), 'Dream a Little Dream of Me' which peaked in the charts at #12. All her other Single releases between 1968-74 failed to break into the Top #20, some not even making the chart at all. Her album releases faired no better, not a single one of them even got close to the Top 50 apart from the 1971 album 'Dave Mason and Cass Elliot' (on which Cass actually does more backing vocals then anything else, though she did co-write two songs, 'Here We Go Again' and 'Something To Make You Happy'). 

Her final album before her death was released in 1973. The shows at which the album was recorded (in Chicago) were deemed a success but that didn't translate into sales.

At the height of her solo career in 1974 Cass was performing two weeks of sold out shows at the London Palladium. After the final show on 28th July she went back to her flat which was on loan from Harry Nilsson and she died in her sleep at aged 32. She died of a heart attack (and not the myth that she had chocked on a ham sandwich!). It was reported that the heart attack could have been brought on by extreme weight loss (she had lost over 80 pounds in the space of four months by fasting four days a week. This, reports say, severly weakened her heart).

Although the last years of her life were blighted by poor record sales etc I like to remember Cass Elliot more for her time with The Mamas and The Papas and all the brilliant music they made within a three year period of 1965-68. 
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