“Mama” Cass Elliot
(1941 - 1974)
Called the Earth Mother of Hippiedom by fellow band
member John Phillips, Cass Elliot brought charm and vocal muscle to
a stormy and transitional period of American music history. In flowery
print dresses of the mid-1960s, made tentlike to accommodate her great
size, Elliot, born Ellen Naomi Cohen on February 19, 1941, in Baltimore,
grew to fame with the tightly harmonic vocal group the Mamas and
the Papas. During their three-year reign at the top of popular music
charts, the Mamas and the Papas melded folk and psychedelic styles
in a quartet whose half-dozen remembered songs still evoke a time prior
to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, when hippie ideologies
of communal living and relaxed standards of dress and demeanor had not
yet divided the recording industry or the nation along fierce political
lines. In 1966, the Mamas and the Papas made their television
debut, singing “California Dreamin” on the variety show The Hollywood Palace. It was broadcast to American soldiers in
Vietnam, and host Arthur Godfrey sent “our boys” a message
Cass Elliot looked like the mother of a commune, photographed
lounging on the grass, a bottle of wine at her side. The band’s
familial names lent credence to the public image that their lives were
one continuous summer picnic. Papa John Phillips, baritone and songwriter,
was a gangly opposite to his wife, Michelle Phillips. Michelle Phillips's
delicate beauty offset the robust Mama Cass. Rounding out the quartet
was tenor Denny Doherty, who shared the band's penchant for long hair
and brightly colored clothing. Musically, the Mamas and the Papas created a sound never duplicated in American pop music. Their harmonies,
indebted to the power of Elliot's voice, resemble a distant, often eerie
echo that suddenly appears to be closer than it sounds. “California
Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” and “I Saw
Her Again Last Night,” all written by John Phillips, remain staples
of both AM radio and elevator music circuits, an honor never bestowed
on songs by the band’s hard-edged contemporaries Janis Joplin
and Jimi Hendrix. But even within the Mamas and the Papas’
lush harmonies, the candor of Cass Elliot's voice is conspicuous.
Though very much a California band, the members of
the Mamas and the Papas found each other through the folk music
network in New York. Elliot had had her own group, Cass and the Big
Three, and had been a member of the Mugwumps with Doherty
before joining John Phillips's new band at St. Thomas in the Virgin
Islands, where the quartet perfected its sound in sunlight and penury.
One of the Mamas and the Papas' biggest hits, the autobiographical
chronicle "Creeque Alley," details the genesis of the band
down to John Phillips's American Express card, which sustained all four
until they arrived in Los Angeles and were immediately signed to a recording
contract at Dunhill Records in 1965.
Although always overweight, Cass Elliot appeared comfortable
with her size, and allowed it to inspire a few of John Phillips's lyrics.
Verses of "Creeque Alley" conclude with the refrain, "No
one's getting fat except Mama Cass." In his autobiography, Phillips
says Elliot repeatedly tried to lose weight, but such worries never
penetrated her public persona. A solo LP called "Bubblegum, Lemonade,
and ... Something for Mama" features Elliot in a white baby dress
seated on a wicker chair looking positively enormous. Labeled "the
queen of L.A. pop society in the mid-sixties" by Rolling Stone,
Elliot lived in a home in Laurel Canyon once owned by Natalie Wood.
She surrounded herself with famous and soon-to-be famous peers in the
recording industry, including David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash,
and Joni Mitchell. Elliot was first married to James Hendricks, of Cass
and the Big Three, with whom she had a daughter, Owen Vanessa, in
1967, and again briefly to Baron Donald von Wiedenman in 1971.
Elliot's solo career began in 1968 with the release
of the Mamas and the Papas song “Dream a Little Dream of
Me.” Solo performing deprived her of the opportunity to serve
the sumptuous harmonies that made the quartet distinctive, although
“Dream a Little Dream” remains the clearest indication of
her gift. She released eight albums as a solo artist (one as part of
a duet with former Traffic member Dave Mason), but none was successful.
Cass Elliot contented herself with a career in cabaret, and in the early
1970s was a frequent guest on television programs like The Hollywood
Squares. Ironically, she was a guest host on The Tonight Show as the nation learned of Janis Joplin's death. Soon afterward, Elliot
died after completing a show at the London Palladium on July 29, 1974.
Speculation that Elliot choked on a sandwich has bound her musical legacy
with her weight in perpetuity, a turn of events Cass Elliot might have
SELECTED WORKS BY CASS ELLIOT
RECORDINGS WITH THE BIG THREE
The Big Three (1963); The Big Three Featuring Cass Elliot (1969); Live
at the Recording Studio (1964).
RECORDINGS WITH THE MUGWUMPS
The Mugwumps (1967).
RECORDINGS WITH THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS
Deliver (1967); Historic Performance at the Monterey International Pop
Festival (1968); If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966); The Mamas
and the Papas (1966); People Like Us (1971); Present The Papas and the
Bubblegum, Lemonade and . . . Somethingfor Mama (1969); Cass Elliot
(1971); Dave Mason and Cass Elliot (1971); Compilation: Mama's Big Ones
(1971); Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (1973); Dream a Little Dream (1968);
Make Your Own Kind of Music (1969); The Road Is No Place for a Lady
Sources: Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore eds. Jewish
Women in America. NY: Routledge, 1997. Reprinted with permission
of the American Jewish Historical Society.