Phillips, John Edmund Andrew
PHILLIPS, John Edmund Andrew
(b. 30 August 1935 on Parris Island, South Carolina; d. 18 March 2001 in Los Angeles, California), singer, songwriter, and guitarist who founded the Mamas and the Papas, one of the most successful folk-rock groups of the 1960s.
Phillips was the youngest of three children of Captain Claude Andrew Phillips, a U.S. Marine, and Edna Gertrude Gaines, a homemaker who later ran a dress shop and worked in a department store, among other jobs. (In his autobiography, Papa John, Phillips writes that when he was eighteen, his mother confessed that he was actually the son of Roland Meeks, a doctor in the marines who died in a Japanese prison camp.) Phillips grew up primarily in Alexandria, Virginia, and became interested in music while he was in high school; he was taught to play the guitar by his brother-in-law and sang harmonies with a group of male friends. His childhood was tumultuous, in part because of tensions between his mother and his father, who was given a medical discharge from the marines after two heart attacks.
Phillips graduated from high school in 1954 and, despite a spotty school record, earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was given a medical discharge in March 1955, officially because of a childhood head injury, although he makes clear in his autobiography that this was just his excuse. He then enrolled briefly at several colleges before giving up higher education and becoming a salesman, primarily of cars, in the fall of 1956. In May 1957 he married Susan Adams, with whom he had two children, the second of whom, Laura Mackenzie Phillips, grew up to become the actress Mackenzie Phillips.
Phillips's interest in music led him to organize the vocal quartet the Abstracts in the spring of 1959; the group changed its name to the Smoothies when they signed with Decca Records in early 1960. Their recordings were not successful, and they split up by the end of the year. Phillips stuck with one member, Phil Blondheim, who had changed his name to Scott McKenzie, and adding the banjoist and guitarist Dick Weissman, they formed a Kingston Trio–like folk group called the Journeymen in early 1961. The Journeymen were more successful than the Smoothies, releasing three albums on Capitol Records and performing at the nation's most prestigious nightclubs. While they were appearing in San Francisco in the spring of 1961, Phillips met the teenager (Holly) Michelle Gilliam, with whom he fell in love. The following year, he divorced his wife. He and Gilliam married on 31 December 1962. Phillips and Gilliam had one daughter, Chynna, who went on to become a singer in the group Wilson Phillips and also had a career as a solo artist. They divorced in 1970.
The Journeymen broke up in the spring of 1964, and Phillips organized the New Journeymen, initially consisting of himself, his wife, and the banjoist and guitarist Marshall Brickman. In December, Phillips brought in Denny Doherty, formally of the Halifax Three, as lead singer, and Brickman quit soon after. Doherty introduced Phillips to Cass Elliot, a former member of the Mugwumps, and the four singers spent much of the spring and summer of 1965 rehearsing on the island of Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Moving to Los Angeles, they auditioned for record labels and were signed by Lou Adler's Dunhill Records. They named themselves the Mamas and the Papas.
The Mamas and the Papas' first single, released in late 1965, was "California Dreamin'," Phillips's plaintive lament about imagining the joys of West Coast living while being stranded in wintertime New York. The group's distinctive harmonies made the song a million-selling Top Five hit. It was followed by the debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears in the winter of 1966. The album topped the charts and went gold, spawning a second hit, "Monday, Monday," which also hit number one and sold a million copies. Released in the spring, a third single, "I Saw Her Again," made the Top Five.
Meanwhile, the group was rent with dissension brought on by romantic troubles. Michelle Phillips had an affair with Doherty, and Phillips briefly had her drummed out of the group before relenting and reinstating her in time to work on the second album. Released as The Mamas & the Papas in late summer, it hit the Top Five and went gold. The next single, "Look Through My Window," only made the Top Twenty, but "Words of Love," with Elliot on lead vocals, drawn from the album, reached the Top Five, and "Dedicated to the One I Love," released in early 1967, just missed topping the charts. It was the advance single for the third album, The Mamas & the Papas Deliver, which hit number one and went gold. The album also included "Creeque Alley," a virtual biography of the group and another Top Five hit.
Phillips and Adler organized the Monterey Pop Festival, the first of the big rock festivals of the 1960s, which occurred in June 1967, with the Mamas and the Papas as the closing act. The group's next single, "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)," released that summer, was a Top Twenty hit. An even bigger hit was the Phillips-penned "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," released by the former Journeyman Scott McKenzie, which reached the Top Five.
The Mamas and the Papas released a revival of the Rodgers and Hart show tune "Glad to Be Unhappy" as their next single (it reached the Top Forty) while preparing their fourth album. However, interpersonal relations had become so strained that they were unable to finish it in time for the Christmas season. The relatively disappointing The Papas & the Mamas finally appeared in the spring of 1968, and from it a revival of the 1931 hit "Dream a Little Dream of Me," billed to "Mama Cass with the Mamas & the Papas," made the Top Ten. The group split soon after.
Phillips attempted to launch a solo career with the album John Phillips (John the Wolfking of L.A.) in 1970, but it was a commercial failure. Dunhill then forced the Mamas and the Papas to reunite for an album to fulfill their contract, but People Like Us (1971) was another disappointment. Phillips married Genevieve Waite on 31 January 1972. They had two children before separating in 1985. Phillips worked on other projects and became progressively more involved with drugs during the 1970s, finally being arrested in 1980. After cleaning up, he launched a new version of the Mamas and the Papas with Doherty, his daughter Mackenzie, and Spanky McFarlane, the former singer from the group Spanky and Our Gang. He was a coauthor of the 1988 number-one hit "Kokomo," recorded by the Beach Boys. Phillips died of heart failure and is buried in Palm Springs Mortuary and Mausoleum in Palm Springs, California.
Papa John: An Autobiography (1986), by John Phillips with Jim Jerome, tells, as its cover blurb proclaims, "a music legend's shattering journey through sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," placing particular emphasis on Phillips's drug problems of the late 1970s and 1980s. Michelle Phillips, California Dreamin': The True Story of the Mamas and the Papas (1986), gives her perspective. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post (both 19 Mar. 2001).
William J. Ruhlmann