[sixties-l] The 60s Melody Man

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Tue Mar 20 2001 - 16:14:08 EST

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    The '60s Melody Man


    John Phillips Made the Mamas and the Papas Sing

    By Tim Page
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 20, 2001; Page C01

    As you read these words, over the breakfast table or riding the Metro on
    the day that winter officially yields to spring, somebody somewhere is
    listening to the Mamas and the Papas sing "California Dreamin' " and
    feeling just fine. John Phillips, who died Sunday at the age of 65, founded
    the group, wrote the song and coordinated the close, sweet harmonies. It
    was the first in a series of airy, expertly wrought soft-rock hits, to be
    followed by "Monday, Monday," "I Saw Her Again," "Dedicated to the One I
    Love" and perhaps half a dozen others.
    Both lament and celebration, a Northeasterner's longing evocation of
    greener grass on the other side of the continent "California Dreamin' " was
    the No. 1 pop song in America almost exactly 35 years ago, topping the
    charts in the frozen February of 1966.
    The song, and the album from which it was culled, "If You Can Believe Your
    Eyes and Ears," launched a short, strange career for four young musicians
    who had been playing the clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village for
    several years.
    Phillips, the principal songwriter, was married to another member of the
    band, Michelle Phillips, a waiflike beauty barely out of her teens. Denny
    Doherty and "Mama" Cass Elliot filled out the ensemble.
    Stronger singers than they were instrumentalists, the Mamas and the Papas
    were generally accompanied by professional studio musicians, some of the
    finest in Southern California, where the group had moved even before their
    "dream" had turned into a worldwide hit.
    It was an exciting time to be in Los Angeles. Brian Wilson was fashioning
    his gorgeous pop phantasmagorias in a gated mansion in the hills of Bel
    Air; Neil Young, Stephen Stills and their group Buffalo Springfield were
    packing them in on the Sunset Strip; and the Byrds were at work on their
    most inventive albums, "Younger Than Yesterday" and "The Notorious Byrd
    Throughout 1966 and 1967, the Mamas and the Papas were more commercially
    successful than any of these other bands, and that is saying a good deal.
    They spawned a sound-alike group that had its own handful of hits, Spanky
    and Our Gang.
    "Coupling a sure melodic sense to a flair for zeitgeist sloganeering,
    [Phillips] made music that was hip yet unthreatening," critic Paul Evans
    once observed. "The band's marketability was also boosted by a clearly
    delineated visual lineup: John, the six-foot-four 'genius'; Doherty the
    winsome one; Mama Cass the earth mother and Michelle the mistily gorgeous
    hippie chick."
    In an era that increasingly placed a premium on radical experimentation,
    the Mamas and the Papas looked backward, incorporating old-fashioned Tin
    Pan Alley-style songwriting, honky-tonk piano and barber-shop harmonies
    into their records.
    By 1968, they had fallen out of favor with the hip intelligentsia, and the
    hits dwindled.
    The personal dynamics in the group were always complicated, one of its
    later hits, "Creeque Alley," amounts to a collective autobiography of the
    travails. Cass left to become a successful solo artist (she would die
    young, of a heart attack, in 1974), while John, Michelle and Denny were
    involved in a romantic triangle that ended in considerable acrimony. In
    April 1970, Phillips brought out a solo album, "John Phillips," later
    reissued as "John, The Wolf King of L.A." It contains some of his most
    attractive work, leisurely, tuneful, simply arranged, country-tinged
    ruminations on the high life in Topanga
    and Malibu, but it never rose past 181 on the Billboard charts.
    Phillips spent most of the next decade in a self-willed haze of drugs and
    alcohol; in 1980 he was convicted on a narcotics charge and spent a month
    in jail. After release and rehabilitation, he formed a new Mamas and Papas
    (in partnership with his similarly to-hell-and-back daughter, television
    actress Mackenzie Phillips) and wrote an unusually candid autobiography,
    "Papa John." In 1989 he was listed as a writer on the Beach Boys' last (and
    probably least) hit, "Kokomo."
    The Scottish band Belle & Sebastian has a song called "It Could Have Been a
    Brilliant Career," words that could be applied to John Phillips with sad
    acuity. Still, the Mamas and the Papas gave us some of the most engaging
    and durable "good-time music" of the 1960ssongs that continue to breathe
    fresh life into the memories of those of us who were there, while bringing
    in younger listeners as well. Not a bad epitaph.

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