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 of hope.
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 heartily enjoyed.
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 Mamas (1968).
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 (1972).
Sources: Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore eds. Jewish Women in America. NY: Routledge, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society.