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March 8, 2005
It’s pledge time on PBS, and that means WHRO-TV will be pulling out lots of music programs over the course of the next two weeks. One of the most promising, and one that is actually new and never seen before, is California Dreamin’ - The Songs of The Mamas & The Papas, airing at 10:00 pm Wednesday night.
The special includes clips from ‘60s television shows like Ed Sullivan and Hollywood Palace, live performance footage, home movies, interviews and personal remembrances of those halcyon days from 1966 to 1968 when John and Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliott and Denny Doherty topped the charts with rich, harmony-drenched records including “Monday, Monday,” “I Saw Her Again,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “California Dreamin’.”
Only two of the original foursome are still alive. Mama Cass died in 1974 from a heart attack, a victim of her battle with obesity (not from choking on a ham sandwich as was rumored at the time). Papa John died in 2001 at the age of 65, his years of drug abuse finally taking their toll. Denny lives outside of Toronto and is currently on the road with a one-man show called Dream a Little Dream of Me. Michelle has had the highest profile post-Mamas & Papas career, becoming a successful actress in films and on television.
I called Michelle Phillips at her home in California last month to talk about the new PBS special and her days at the top of the pops.
“I’ve never been one of those, ‘Oh well, The Mamas & The Papas, that’s my past,” she told me. “I’d say The Mamas & The Papas were just the beginning of my career. I’m very proud of that. I learned a lot. I learned how to sing.”
Michelle Gilliam was just seventeen when she met John Phillips in 1962 while hanging around the folk scene in San Francisco. Phillips, nine years her senior, was in town with The Journeymen, a Greenwich Village-based trio, and was immediately smitten with the beautiful young model. The two were married by the end of the year, and John soon incorporated his new wife into his musical plans.
“I was in a group for about ten minutes before that,” she laughed, “but I had never had any ambition to sing at all. I was married to John and I was traveling around with him and his group. When his group broke up, he told me he was going to put another group together and he said, ‘Well you’re gonna be in the next group.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because that’s the only way we can justify your expenses on the road.’ I said, ‘I can’t sing well enough to be in a group.’ And he said, ‘You sing just fine.’ So that’s how I ended up in the group.”
Michelle Phillips actually sang better than “just fine,” and her sweet and soaring soprano would become an important element in the trademark Mamas & Papas sound. But it was John’s creative spark that would drive the quartet to its artistic heights.
“John was going for perfection all the time,” Michelle recalls. “And he had a magnificent ear for vocals. He was really a genius arranger. You just worked and worked and worked on that song until the parts were all there. And sometimes you would work on a part for hours and then he would change it. All of a sudden he would hear what he’d been looking for, and it would sound fantastic. So as much as you would complain while you were in the studio, the end result was so wonderful and really magnificent that we even shocked ourselves.”
The songs themselves were deceptively simple folk songs for the most part, but the multi-layered harmonies created a complexity rare on the Top 40.
“We were just trying to write commercial music,” she explains, “so we’d do these little ditties. Then we’d lay these vocal tracks over them and they became something else completely.”
Michelle shares writing credit on a handful of songs, most notably “California Dreamin’,” a song the twosome composed in New York.
“We wrote it on a cold and chilly night,” she remembers. “He actually started writing it and then he woke me up in the middle of the night and said, ‘Listen to this song I’m writing.’ And he sang, ‘All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.’ And he said, ‘What do you think?’
“I said, ‘I love it, it’s great.’ He said, ‘Well, wake up and help me write it.’ I said, ‘John, I’ll help you write it…tomorrow!’ He said, ‘No, no, wake up now. You’ll thank me for this someday.’ And I do.”
The Mamas & The Papas only lasted two and a half years, partly because of the romantic entanglements and emotional intensity among the four singers. One of the group’s most fully realized recordings was “I Saw Her Again,” a vocal powerhouse of a song whose lyrics hint at infidelity and secret sexual liaisons.
“That was a song that John and Denny wrote together,” Michelle says. “Denny and I began this little flirtation that turned into a little more. When it came to light, there was something that had to be answered. And John and Denny just started writing this song, ‘I Saw Her Again,’ and I think it was, in a way, John’s kind of torture for Denny to make him write this song and then make him sing it.
“As John used to say, ‘It’s important to turn tragedy into publishing.’ And as long as there was a lot of drama going on between the four of us, there were a lot of good songs coming out of it.”
But that kind of personal drama can take its toll on those involved:
“All four of us started out living together. When we lived in the Virgin Islands, we were living on the beach in tents in a little community. And then we came to Los Angeles and we rented a house. It was a matter of economics, but it was also a matter of the logistics of it. We had to be together, we had to rehearse and then we had to be in the studio together.
“After you live and breathe twenty four hours a day with the same people, and there’s so much going on in the love affairs and the friendships…After a while, it’s exhausting. You want to do something else, you want to get out and meet other people.”
By late ‘68, The Mamas & The Papas were history.
But that sound, oh, that sound. Those luxuriously overdubbed harmonies will linger in the air as long as pop music survives in recorded form. The new PBS program is an opportunity to revisit that sound and those high flying days of musical sunshine.
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