“Mama” Cass Elliot’s strong contralto voice attraeted much of the attention focused on the popular late 1960s vocal group the Mamas and the Papas. She helped provide harmony on all the quartet’s hits, including “California Dreaming,” “Monday, Monday,” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.” Following The Mamas and the Papas’ breakup in 1968, Elliot enjoyed a successful solo career until her death in 1974.
Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1940, Elliot demonstrated her musical interests early in life. During grade school she took piano lessons; later, she tried the guitar, feeling it was more useful for the folk genre. By the time she reached high school, she focused more on her vocal abilities, and often sang in school shows. After graduation, Elliot rebelled against her parents’ wishes that she attend a prestigious women’s college, and moved to New York City to become involved in the folk scene a few years later. She adopted the name Cassandra Elliot, thinking it would help her in show business.
In New York’s Greenwich Village, Elliot joined a folk group called the Big Three. The Big Three also included James Hendricks, to whom she was married for a time. They were successful enough to record two albums, The Big Three and Live at the Recording Studio on the FM label. By 1964, Elliot and her husband were singing with the Mugwumps. This group, too, was able to make a self-titled album, but it was not put out by Warner Bros, until Elliot had gained fame with the Mamas and the Papas.
Meanwhile, Elliot’s career was being admiringly followed by musician John Phillips, and when he decided to form a vocal group in 1965, he recruited her and fellow Mugwump Denny Doherty. Elliot, Phillips, Doherty, and Phillips’s wife Michelle traveled to the Virgin Islands to practice their distinctive sound for five months before heading for Los Angeles, California, to look for a record deal. There, they were discovered by producer Lou Adler, who had just formed the Dunhill label and offered not only to record them but to be their manager.
The Mamas and the Papas’ first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was released in 1966. And the first single from it, “California Dreamin’,” was an attention-gaining smash for them. Geoffrey Stokes explained in Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll that the tune “might have been a hit no matter what it was about, for the group’s hallmark harmonies—controlled, elaborate, cool—were an extraordinarily beautiful pop sound…. It also offered a vision of California that was as romantic as the Beach Boys’ 1965 “California Girls,” without any of that song’s holdover teenage ethos … tantalizing] Easterners with a California that was enigmatically magical.”
Full Name, Cassandra Elliot; name originally Ellen Naomi Cohen; born September 19, 1941, in Baltimore, Md.; died as a result of choking (one source says heart attack) July 29, 1974, in London, England; married James Hendricks (a musician; marriage ended) children: Owen (daughter).
Member of The Big Three, 1963-64; member of The Mugwumps, 1964-65; member of The Mamas and the Papas, 1965-68; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1963-74.
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears also includes the classic “Monday, Monday,” a recording of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney tune “I Call Your Name,” and the enthusiastically upbeat “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Elliot and the Mannas and the Papas followed up their initial success with a late 1966 self-titled album that included two big hits, “I Saw Her Again” and “Words of Love.” Their 1967 effort, Deliver, also produced two chart-climbers—a remake of the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love,” which Stokes lauded as a “three-minute chorale,” and “Creeque Alley,” which more or less told the group’s story. But 1968’s The Papas and the Mamas produced only minor singles like “Twelve Thirty” and “Glad to Be Unhappy.” In addition, the Phillips’s souring marriage, along with musical differences among the members, was creating tension within the group, and the Mamas and the Papas broke up.
Elliot, still recording for Dunhill, wasted no time in launching her solo career. She took a song from the last Mamas and Papas album and turned it into the title track for her debut album, released late in 1968. Her solo rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” became a much bigger hit for her than it had for the group. Elliot made two albums the following year, Bubblegum, Lemonade, and Something for Mama, and Make Your Own Kind of Music, the title tune of the latter scoring another hit for her. In 1971, Elliot made an album with musician Dave Mason, which Brock Helander in his book The Rock Who’s Who kindly remembered as “an ill-received but underrated album.”
Though Elliot changed to the RCA label in 1972, she never had another hit. She did, however, continue to be a popular nightclub and concert performer. Elliot had just finished a 1974 stint at the Palladium Theater in London, England, when she was found dead in her hotel room. She reportedly had choked on a ham sandwich, but at least one source listed the cause of death as a heart attack. Elliot’s “crystal voice” was recalled in her Newsweek obituary.
With the Big Three
The Big Three, FM, 1963.
Live at the Recording Studio, FM, 1964.
With the Mamas and the Papas
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (includes “California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and “I Call Your Name”), Dunhill, 1966.
The Mamas and the Papas (includes “I Saw Her Again,” “Words of Love,” “No Salt on Her Tail,” “Dancing Bear,” “Strange Young Girls,” and “Trip, Stumble, and Fall”), Dunhill, 1966.
Deliver (includes “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Creeque Alley”), Dunhill, 1967.
The Papas and the Mamas (includes “Twelve Thirty,” “Safe in My Garden,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “Glad to Be Unhappy”), Dunhill, 1968.
(With The Mugwumps) The Mugwumps, Warner Bros., 1967.
(With Dave Mason) Dave Mason and Cass Elliot, Blue Thumb, 1971.
Dream a Little Dream (includes “Dream a Little Dream”), Dunhill, 1968.
Bubblegum, Lemonade, and Something for Mama, Dunhill, 1969.
Make Your Own Kind of Music (includes “Make Your Own Kind of Music”), Dunhill, 1969.
Cass Elliot, RCA, 1972.
The Road Is No Place for a Lady, RCA, 1972.
Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore, RCA, 1973.
Helander, Brock, The Rock Who’s Who, Schirmer Books, 1982.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Summit Books, 1986.
Newsweek, August 12, 1974.
New York Times, July 30, 1974.
Time, August 12, 1974.
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