Phillips, Michelle (1944—)

views updated

Phillips, Michelle (1944—)

American singer and actress who was a member of The Mamas and the Papas. Born Holly Michelle Gilliam on June 4, 1944, in Long Beach, California; daughter of Gardner Burnett (a merchant marine) and Joyce Leon (Poole) Gilliam (an accountant); married John Phillips (a singer), on December 31, 1962 (divorced 1968); married Dennis Hopper (an actor), in 1970 (divorced); married Robert Burch (a radio executive; marriage ended); married again, in 2000; children: Gilliam Chynna Phillips (b. 1968, a singer known as Chynna Phillips); Austin Devereux Hines (b. 1982); Aron Wilson (adopted 1988); (step-daughter) Mackenzie Phillips (an actress).

Michelle Phillips, who achieved fame as a member of the 1960s folk-rock group The Mamas and the Papas, was born in 1944 in Long Beach, and spent her early childhood in postwar government housing in Los Angeles. She lost her mother to heart disease when she was very young, and as a teenager she experimented with drugs and tried modeling in San Francisco. She also began to frequent the popular folk music clubs that were emerging throughout San Francisco in the early 1960s, among them the famous Hungry i, where she met guitarist and singer John Phillips. In 1962, she followed him to New York, where she modeled and occasionally filled in as a singer with his band, the Journeymen. They were married at the end of that year.

A few years later, as the antiwar and civil-rights movements were in full swing, and hippie "flower children" were creating their own culture, Michelle and John, along with Marshall Brickman, formed the New Journeymen folk group. They lived a freewheeling lifestyle, touring nationwide and performing at the many folk clubs in New York City, where other performers included Peter, Paul, and Mary (Travers ), Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez . In 1964, Michelle and John took a long vacation in the Virgin Islands with Denny Doherty, a friend and fellow musician. They were joined there by Cass Elliot , a singer who had been in a band with Doherty, and the four spent some five months creating a new band and a new sound.

By 1965, they were back in San Francisco, where the newly formed Dunhill Records label quickly saw the potential in the as-yet-unnamed group's vocal harmonies. The Phillipses, Elliot and Doherty recorded an album even before finalizing their group's name, which became The Mamas and the Papas. Their first single was "California Dreamin'," which would become a sort of theme song for the '60s generation. Written by Michelle and John, the song was an instant hit upon its release in March 1966, landing at #4 on the charts and eventually selling a million copies. In her autobiography, Phillips described "California Dreamin'" as "one of those songs that didn't just reflect what was going on; it gave impetus to change, to turn things around." In May, their second single, "Monday Monday," became the #1 song in the country. The band's album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was released the same month and also reached the top of the charts, as did their second album (also released in 1966), The Mamas and the Papas. "I Saw Her Again," "Creeque Alley," and "Words of Love," as well as a remake of the Shirelles ' "Dedicated to the One I Love," all became top hits for the band, and over 30 years later these songs remain staples of radio programming. "Monday Monday" won a Grammy Award in 1967. A particularly significant event for the band took place in June of that year, when they performed at the highly publicized Monterey Pop Festival, along with other folk and rock performers including Janis Joplin , Canned Heat, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and the Byrds. (The Mamas and the Papas can be seen in the documentary film of the festival, 1969's Monterey Pop.)

Phillips enjoyed her newfound success as part of one of the biggest folk-rock bands in the country; as she later wrote, "We had it all: appearance, youth, style, originality, wit, great tunes, and above all, we could sing." Ensconced in Bel Air, California, Michelle and John enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, complete with rowdy parties, illicit drugs, conspicuous consumption and fancy cars. She also had a few affairs, including one with Doherty, leading to tensions within her marriage and within the band. Despite their spectacular success, The Mamas and the Papas was gradually divided by drug use, marital infidelities, and infighting. In 1968, the same year the Phillipses' daughter Chynna Phillips was born, both the marriage and The Mamas and the Papas were dissolved. (Chynna Phillips would later team up with Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson , daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, to form the vocal trio Wilson Phillips.)

After the group's demise, Phillips pursued an acting career and had high-profile romances with actors Dennis Hopper (to whom she was married for eight days), Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and with director Roman Polanski (whose wife Sharon Tate had been murdered in 1969). Phillips has appeared in television series and television movies, and her film credits include Dillinger (1973), Shampoo (1975), American Anthem (1986), and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988). The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.


Contemporary Authors. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999.

Phillips, Michelle. California Dreamin': The True Story of The Mamas and the Papas. NY: Warner Books, 1986.

Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor

About this article

Phillips, Michelle (1944—)

Updated About content Print Article