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
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
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
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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