Monday, 1 October 2012

'Make your own kind of music' - Mama Cass.

The Mamas and the Papas
Mama Cass Elliot was one of the more striking and unusual of 1960s pop stars.  A key figure in Californian dreamers, the Mamas and the Papas  (and was there ever a more sixties name for a group?) she was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland.  

She performed with a series of moderately successful groups including The Mugwumps and The Triumvirate, with Tim Rose and John Brown, later to become The Big 3 (with James Hendricks in place of Brown) and make several national TV appearances.

In 1965, Cass went out to the Virgin Islands to join Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips. These three had been performing as The New Journeymen.  When Cass joined, the foursome launched as The Mamas and the Papas:

There is a version of the story that has Doherty and the Phillipses dropping acid just before Cass makes her (unexpected) entrance - in typically flamboyant dress - looking, according to John Phillips like "a giant mushroom".  Whatever the truth of this, it was certainly the case that, having worked with Cass in the Mugwumps, Doherty was happy to have her join them.

What Cass brought to the group, besides her beautiful voice, was a crucial kind of balance - even though John Phillips resisted her inclusion arguing that she couldn't hit the notes needed (whilst apparently having strong reservations about her build).  Cass refused to hide, the larger she got, the brighter and more "way out" her clothes seemed to get.  She was, you might say, Madame Ambassador for the Big, Beautiful Woman.

Cass certainly made for an interesting contrast, visually, with the more conventional "beanpole" beauty of Michelle Phillips (25-year-old John had left his wife and two kids for Michelle - she was just sixteen at the time).

When the group finally split, in 1971, Cass was free to pursue her solo singing career. She died of heart failure in 1974, during an extremely successful concert series in London.  The night of her death, she had been on the phone to Michelle telling how thrilled she was with the standing ovations at the London Palladium.

Although they were far from the biggest pop sensation of the decade, the Mamas and the Papas have carried forward some essence of the sixties for future generations. They sold over forty million records worldwide, and their sweet harmonies still feel like a musical arm wrapped around your troubled shoulders...

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