The Mamas and the Papas were the epitome of California-based sunshine hippie pop and folk-rock, blending their voices to create two huge anthems of the ‘60s in “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.”
They also had a string of other hits with “Creeque Alley,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Words of Love,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “I Saw Her Again Last Night” and “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon”).
The uniformity of their blended voices was at odds with their visual appearance: Tall, lanky, hip facial-haired guitarist leader John Phillips, wife and consummate winsome stunning blond hippie girl Michelle Phillips; short, robust, and handsome tenor Denny Doherty and equally diminutive vocal powerhouse and overweight Cass Elliot.
Surprisingly, the Mamas and Papas bookshelf is thin. John and Michelle both wrote highly subjective and often at odds memoirs (Papa John and California Dreamin’). There was an oral history (Go Where You Wanna Go) while Cass was the subject of Dream a Little Dream of Me. No comprehensive or deep bio has appeared, until now.
It’s welcome news for fans that an expertly-researched, densely detailed, and likely definitive bio arrives in the form of Scott G. Shea’s All the Leaves are Brown: How the Mamas and Papas Came Together and Broke Apart (422 pp., $32.95, Backbeat Books).
In it, Shea deftly interweaves the story of the group’s music (almost completely written by John) with their interpersonal relationships, struggles, endless parties, drugs. And sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex, in and out of the group.
In that area, Fleetwood Mac has nothing on the Mamas and Papas. John left his wife and two young children for the teenaged Michelle. They married, but both indulged in many extramarital affairs.
Denny had a longtime crush on Michelle, which led to intense flirting, eventually consummated multiple times. Upon finding out, John left to move in with…Denny, so he could sleep with willing groupies (oddly, the situation seemed to make the best friends grow closer and inspired “I Saw Her Again Last Night”). Denny carried a giant torch for Michelle for years, only finding solace in thousands of purple bags of Crown Royal.
Cass had had an intense, longtime crush on Denny, who kept her friend-zoned even after she made her pitch for them as a couple from her hospital bed. Cass became angry at Denny and jealous of Michelle, who would briefly be ousted from the group for her supposed sins and starting an affair with Gene Clark of the Byrds, replaced with producer Lou Adler’s girlfriend Jill Gibson, then welcomed back. The Phillips marriage would then go through cycles of intense coupling, flamboyant cheating, and indifference. Got all of that?
The book gives the most detailed yet accounting of the lives and budding careers of the four members prior to joining forces. John’s story not surprisingly, emerges as the most messed up from his background. Though his egotism, ambition and hedonism were equally destructive. And the reader can’t help but feel sorry for Cass, whose heaviness made her the butt of jokes and derision for most of her life.
And while she developed a sassy, self-deprecating I’ll-joke-about-it-first approach, it clearly still stung. John actually put off adding her to the group as long as possible, fearful that she would present the “wrong” physical image for his imagined group.
Though it became clear that her considerable vocal talent and on-stage charm was very much needed, especially since Michelle’s frail voice simply couldn’t carry the material, a point which even she conceded.
And Cass doesn’t get enough credit for running a musical salon-cum-party-pad out of her home that brought together or sewed and fermented the seeds of such groups as diverse as the Lovin’ Spoonful, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Monkees, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell and British ex-pats like Dave Mason and Eric Clapton.
Unintentionally funny are Shea’s seemingly bottomless chronicles of how broke, desperate, scuffling, or at-rope’s-end the quartet were at various stage of their pre-fame career when it came to music or money. Only to be seemingly “saved” by an odd circumstance or connection.
When pre-M&P formation Phillips’ and their eight friends were stuck in the U.S. Virgin Islands and needing to escape bill collectors after an extended drug-fueled vacation/working trip, they cleaned up, put on stage clothes, and took their last $50 to the craps table at a nearby casino. After Michelle (who had never played before) rolled an astonishing 17 winning throws in a row, there was enough funds for all ten to get airline tickets and fly back to New York—first class.
The group’s rise is fairly quick with hits off their first two albums. But even as success flushes them with cash, it’s only used to exacerbate issues of drugs, sex, and bad behavior. John spends lavishly on himself and Michelle but offers not a penny to the care of the two children he left behind.
This includes Mackenzie Phillips, who would shoot to superstardom on the TV show One Day at a Time, go through decades of drug and emotional issues. And then in 2009 drop the bomb that she and her father engaged in a decade-long, consensual incestuous relationship after he reportedly raped her on her wedding night. Opinions on the veracity of this claim vary wildly.
Shea’s chapters on the groundbreaking Monterey Pop Festival (of which John was heavily involved in organizing and promoting) are especially interesting, down to a detailed recounting of performers’’ sets.
However, the love-flowers-and-music aesthetic was both the pinnacle and the beginning of the end for the group, as they saw their brand of sunshiney pop and harmonies gives way to the burgeoning popularity of harder music.
It wasn’t the purported headliners’ subpar set that made news, but the incendiary and revelatory performances by Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin) and soul man Otis Redding who galvanized the crowds. Their sets then (and now) were easily deemed the shows highlights.
Shea adeptly fills in the narrative following their final contractually-forced record in 1971 after which the original quartet split for good. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, by which time Cass had died. Since then, John and Denny have also done so, leaving the now 79-year-old Michelle as the last group member standing.
All the Leaves are Brown is the book that finally tells the full story of the music and madness that was the relatively brief—but era-defining—lifespan of the Mamas and the Papas.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE...
Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.