Elliot, Cass (1941–1974)

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Elliot, Cass (1941–1974)

American ensemble and solo singer who played a crucial role in generating the phenomenal success enjoyed by The Mamas and the Papas. Name variations: Mama Cass. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1941; died of a heart attack in London, England, on July 29, 1974; daughter of Philip Cohen and Beth (Levine) Cohen; married James R. Hendricks; married Donald von Weidenman; children: daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot-Kugell (b. 1967).

Largely thanks to the crystalline contralto voice of "Mama" Cass Elliot, the American vocal quartet The Mamas and the Papas enjoyed huge success during the mid-1960s. Elliot was the most popular member of this group probably because of her down-to-earth persona, which included her frequent references to her struggles with being overweight. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen, she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in a Jewish-American, middle-class home. Her parents were in the restaurant business and had a strong affinity for music. Her father Philip was an opera buff, her mother Beth a piano player. Attracted to music from her earliest years, Ellen found favorite singers in Ella Fitzgerald , Judy Garland , and Blossom Dearie . She took piano lessons in grade school and later learned to play the guitar because of her growing interest in folk music. Comfortable performing, she sang in her high school choir and acted in high school theater productions.

By the time she was 17, Ellen Naomi Cohen had chosen a stage name, Cassandra Elliot. Nicknamed Cass by her father for the prophetess Cassandra of Greek mythology, she included "Elliot" in honor of a friend who had died in a car accident. Cass Elliot dropped out of Baltimore's Forest Park High School shortly before graduation and never received her diploma. Instead, she moved to New York City to embark on a stage career. In Manhattan, she landed a few Off-Broadway parts as well as a role in the touring company of The Music Man. Elliot also paid her rent by directing at Ellen Stewart 's Café La Mama.

During her first years in New York, she became involved in the richly creative folk music scene of that era. Her marriage in 1963 to James R. Hendricks resulted in her singing along with Hendricks and Tim Rose in the Big Three, a short-lived but pivotal folk group. The Big Three recorded two albums for the FM label, The Big Three and Live at the Recording Studio, but neither achieved hit status. By summer 1964, the Big Three had evolved into a new group called The Mugwumps. Besides Elliot and Hendricks, The Mugwumps included two Canadian-born musicians, Dennis (Denny) Doherty and Zalman Yanovsky. The Mugwumps, who went electric, had an original sound and received decent reviews, but there was little response from the public. An album tape they made for Warner Bros. Records would not be released until Elliot and Doherty had both become superstars as members of another group.

By 1964, Cass Elliot's musical talents had been spotted by a number of musicians, including John Phillips. Six years older than Elliot, South Carolina-born Phillips had a recording career that dated back to 1960. As a member of the folk trio The Journeymen, he had recorded three albums for Capitol Records. In 1964, John and his wife Michelle Phillips moved to the Virgin Islands and along with ex-Mugwump Denny Doherty were in the process of forming a new vocal group. Cass Elliot joined the trio in the islands, where for five months Elliot and her new musical partners worked to perfect the sound of their ensemble. Financially down-and-out but artistically inspired, the group received free accommodations in exchange for singing at a local nightclub.

Confident of their future, Elliot and the others flew to Los Angeles to try to launch their new group with a record deal. They were soon discovered by Lou Adler, a dynamic producer who had just formed the Dunhill Records label and was searching for fresh faces and new talent. He was impressed by the group's distinctive personality and sound, which was a seductive blend of Elliot's soaring contralto, Michelle Phillips' soprano, and Denny Doherty's tenor, along with the tenor voice and strong guitar work of John Phillips who effectively led the group. Convinced that they had created a unique sound and had a future, Adler offered to both record the quartet and serve as their manager. He also gave his approval to the group's catchy name, The Mamas and the Papas.

The March 1966 Dunhill release of a song co-written by John and Michelle Phillips, "California Dreamin'," caught the mood of generational change of the mid-1960s. With its faintly melancholy evocation of an earthly Utopia within reach, "California Dreamin'" shot to #4 on the charts and sold more than one-million copies; it also did well in the United Kingdom, reaching #23 on the British charts. "Monday Monday" was released two months later, and it

too soared on the charts, becoming #1 in the United States and achieving #3 in the United Kingdom.

In May 1966, when the first Mamas and Papas album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, which contained both "California Dreamin'" and "Monday Monday," was released, it soon climbed to the top of the charts, remaining there for more than two years and selling more than one-million copies. Four other Mamas and Papas singles became Top Five hits in 1966 and 1967: "I Saw Her Again," "Words of Love," "Dedicated to the One I Love" (a reworking of the Shirelles classic), and "Creeque Alley," a humorous chronicling of the group's rise to fame and fortune. By the end of 1966, their second album, The Mamas and the Papas, had also sold a million copies. In March 1967, the group received a Grammy Award for "Monday Monday."

By 1967, The Mamas and the Papas had become a musical sensation, one of America's most popular folk-pop groups. They had also become a statement of cultural revolution. Their folkpop songs, although a sophisticated commercial production, gave the appearance of simplicity and innocence at the dawn of the era of flower power and "power-to-the-people." Outlandishly "psychedelic" with their fur hats and other oddities, the group outfitted themselves in a manner that identified them with the youthful allure of San Francisco's counter-culture. They were an emerging but essentially sanitized and unthreatening image of the "hip" subculture that was starting to transform the world of rock music.

Critic Geoffrey Stokes has attributed the success of these talented professionals to the "controlled, elaborate, cool" harmonies that made for "an extraordinarily beautiful pop sound." Songs like "California Dreamin'," "Monday Monday" and other Mamas and Papas hits delivered a sound that was as sophisticated as that which the best Hollywood studios of the day could conjure up, and the group's intelligently crafted combinations of folk, rock and just plain pop were presented in the form of fine melodies and complex but effective harmonies that have been described as "some of the finest in all of rock."

One of the group's most important achievements took place in June 1967, when John Phillips and Lou Adler organized the three-day International Pop Festival that took place in Monterey, California. Possibly the first, and certainly one of the most successful, rock music festivals of the late 1960s, this extravaganza launched the careers of Janis Joplin , Jimi Hendrix, and The Who. The Mamas and the Papas performed as the closing act of the third and final evening of the festival. Although they did not know it, this would be the last time they would perform together in a live concert.

Cass Elliot, with a soaring voice that some critics have described as being simply "stupendous," made a major contribution to the popular success of The Mamas and the Papas. Although she was called "Mama" for her warm, brassy personality and her physical amplitude, she always strongly disliked this label, describing it as "a stigma." In an October 1968 Rolling Stone interview, she emphasized her attempts to stop people from calling her Mama for "all my folksinging life." With the appearance of The Mamas and the Papas, the name Mama Cass became even more strongly linked with Elliot despite her continuing distaste for it. With the birth of her daughter Owen Vanessa (Elliot-Kugell) in March 1967, she would find it virtually impossible to prevent people from calling her "Mama."

Elliot struggled with obesity throughout her life. Overweight since her earliest years, the 5'5" brunette at times weighed as much as 300 pounds. She attempted a number of crash diets, once claiming to have lost 120 pounds. But her attempts to be slim like Michelle Phillips always failed and quite possibly impacted negatively on her general state of health. She asserted that her weight had been, if anything, an advantage in her career, setting her apart from the others. "After all, you'd never mistake me for Jane Fonda, would you?" Elliot insisted that her sense of humor had not developed as a defense mechanism because of her weight. She remarked of her lifelong weight problem, "I simply learned that's the way I am and so I live with it."

In addition to health concerns as a result of her obesity, Elliot abused drugs and alcohol which may have contributed to her occasionally erratic behavior. In October 1967, she was arrested after docking in Southampton, charged with stealing blankets and keys from a hotel on an earlier visit to London. After she spent a night in jail, the charges were dropped, but the ruckus caused a series of Mamas and Papas concerts scheduled for the Royal Albert Hall to be cancelled. By this time, there were rumors of the group's imminent breakup. Largely because of the collapse of John and Michelle Phillips' marriage, The Mamas and the Papas officially disbanded as a group in July 1968. Cass Elliot immediately embarked on an ambitious solo career, signing a $40,000 a week contract to perform in Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace starting in October 1968. After the first night, her act was cancelled, and Cass checked into a hospital for eight weeks. Following her release, the star announced that she had given up her dependency on both drugs and alcohol.

Billing herself as Mama Cass, Elliot now became the most successful solo performer of the individual members of the former Mamas and Papas, each of whom was now concentrating on a solo singing career. Her first solo album, Dream a Little Dream (1968), made it to #87 on the American charts while her second solo single, California Earthquake, did considerably better by advancing to #67. In August 1969, her It's Getting Better reached #30 on the American charts and became a hit in the United Kingdom, reaching #8 there. In 1970, her songs New World Coming and A Song That Never Comes were in the American Top Hundred at #42 and #99 respectively. Her 1969 solo album Make Your Own Kind of Music was no more than a modest success, peaking at #169 on the U.S. charts.

Elliot would keep busy the next several years making albums and singles as well as working a live performance schedule by appearing in nightclubs. She was often seen on television specials and variety shows such as the "Red Skelton Show." Continuing to experiment, she made some never-released tapes with the group Electric Flag as well as a critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing album with British rock star Dave Mason, with whom she also performed at Fillmore East. Elliot's 1971 compilation Mama's Big Ones peaked at a disappointing #194 on the American charts. Her three final solo LPs, for RCA Records, Cass Elliot (1972), The Road Is No Place for a Lady (1972), and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (1973), were unable to produce any more hits.

As the era of the flower children began to fade and a "big chill" mood of disillusionment began to grip the world, Cass Elliot still remained optimistic about both her career and life. In 1971, she married a German Baron, Donald von Weidenman, but the marriage soon resulted in an annulment. Cass Elliot died suddenly in London on July 29, 1974. Early news stories reported that she had choked to death while eating a sandwich. This apocryphal tale of the star's demise quickly became a word-of-mouth legend, often embellished into the myth that she had died on stage, choking on a ham sandwich. The official coroner's report put these rumors to rest, finding the cause of death to be a massive heart attack due to obesity and stress. Although she had died abroad, Elliot's ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Elliot's musical partner Michelle Phillips was emotionally shaken by Mama Cass's sudden death and made special efforts to maintain her own health. Phillips retained an interest in Cass's daughter Owen, who had been born out of wedlock and did not know her father's name. After Phillips placed notices in magazines to discover the father's identity, Owen received a call from Michelle in 1987 saying, "I found your dad. Here's a plane ticket. Go meet him." Leaving behind a rich musical legacy, Cass Elliot had shared a voice with countless fans that became a part of her nation's cultural history. In January 1998, The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame.


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related media:

"Historic Performances at the Monterey Pop Festival: The Mamas and the Papas" (compact disc), MCA Special Products (MCAD–22033).

The Mamas & the Papas: Straight Shooter, ABC Video, Stamford, CT, 1994.

Monterey Pop, film by D.A. Pennebaker, Janus Films, Santa Monica, CA, 1988.

Straight Shooter: The Story of John Phillips and the Mamas & the Papas, Rhino Home Video, Santa Monica, CA, 1989.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia