The Mamas & the Papas on Ed Sullivan 1967 (public domain)
Anyone who knows me well knows I am obsessed with The Mamas & the Papas. This cannot be overstated. Obsessed is such an ugly word; however, words such as admire, appreciate, like, or even love are not strong enough, so I suppose obsessed will have to do.
my uncle’s record
I remember, vividly, how it began. I was 10 years old and visiting my grandmother in Florida. One morning, I walked into the bedroom where my uncle was, undoubtedly, sleeping one off. I woke him up, and instead of yelling at me to go away, which would have been my response had I been him, he told me to play something on his stereo. I asked what he wanted to hear, and he told me to choose, so I began flipping through his extensive record collection. Some of them were familiar because my parents had the same albums (The Doors’s Soft Parade, The Beatles’s Abbey Road, the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar), and I regularly played them, but I was looking for something new, at least to me. His Alice Cooper and KISS albums looked scary as did Black Sabbath, so I passed them by. Eventually, I hit upon an album with two men and two women looking like hippies on the cover. I liked the way they looked, and holding the album up to my uncle, who by then was sitting up in bed smoking a cigarette, I asked, “What about them?” He said it was good enough hangover music. I lifted the gray, smokey glass lid that covered the turntable, and put it on. The Mamas & the Papas. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Like most people, it was the harmonies that moved me. They were like none I’d heard before or since, for that matter. Lots of bands are known for harmony such as The Beach Boys, The Eagles, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, The Association, et al., but none of their harmonies was as intricate and layered as The Mamas & the Papas’s were. Fleetwood Mac comes closest (“The Chain” being a good example) to the vocal acrobatics of the M&Ps, but they still don’t measure up, which is not to say Fleetwood Mac isn’t good; they are brilliant vocally but in a different way.
circa 1967 (public domain)
It was 50 years ago that The Mamas & Papas’s debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was released. Lou Adler, their producer, had a habit of closing his eyes when he was auditioning a band so as to concentrate without any distractions on the music as it would sound on the radio. The band sang what became the first album. He couldn’t believe what he heard, and when he opened his eyes, he couldn’t believe what he saw: John Phillips, the leader, looking like Ichabod Crane in a chinchilla hat; his wife, Michelle, looking like a model, which she had been; Denny Doherty looking like a scruffy Errol Flynn; and Cass Elliot, robust and rotund, looking like a hippie earth mother in a paisley muumuu and go-go boots. He signed them on the spot with the title of the first album already in mind. This was late 1965.
By the mid-60’s, America, which had invented rock and roll, was being inundated by the British Invasion. English acts dominated the airwaves and the charts. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Zombies, The Dave Clark 5, among others, had relatively little American competition. The exceptions were Motown acts and surf rock acts like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. And then America struck back with folk rock, hippies, and counterculture. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sonny and Cher, and The Mamas & the Papas began controlling the airwaves and influencing society. Not only did these bands sound different, they looked different, too. The Mamas & the Papas were the first sexually integrated group, and unlike the English bands of the early to mid 60’s, they did not wear uniforms, suits, or other matching garb. They often looked like they had rolled out of bed, put on whatever was closest, (boots, hats, muumuus, vests) and sometimes maybe washed their hair or shaved. Clean cut they were not. When Dick Clark told his talent scout to book The Mamas & the Papas on American Bandstand, she asked if he had seen them. She said she couldn’t put them on the air because they looked weird. He replied that everyone looked weird now. Times were a changin’.
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears shot to the top of the charts in May 1966 propelled by “California Dreamin'” and “Monday, Monday.” The album was banned in certain places, though, because of the indecent, vulgar cover: the four of them slung up in the bathtub of a dirty bathroom next to a toilet. Dunhill Records had to pull all the albums from stores and reissue a new cover that hid the toilet. Collectors (me) will pay a few hundred dollars for an original exposed toilet cover. The album has since become a classic. Rolling Stone named it #127 of the top 500 albums of all time.
Over the last 30 odd years since I discovered The Mamas & the Papas, I’ve not lost any of the wonder I felt upon hearing them for the first time whilst sitting on my uncle’s bedroom floor. This is evidenced by the fact that I have every record and song they produced, five different books about them, including the Phillips’s dueling autobiographies, three documentaries, four dolls, one per band member (don’t ask how much those cost—it’s obscene), and autographs of them all, which is no small feat considering Cass died in 1974, and both papas are now dead. I listen to and watch videos of them almost every day. They enrich my life, so in this case, the obsession isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we can call it something else. An eccentricity? A peccadillo? Nah, obsession is the only word for it.