The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #34: California Dreaming’ by The Mamas and the Papas (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #34: California Dreaming’ by The Mamas and the Papas.

The Mamas and the Papas were comprised of the husband and wife team of John and Michelle Phillips, along with “Mama” Case Elliott and Denny Doherty (who hailed from Halifax). This quartet were harmonizers extraordinaire. Their two big hits, “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming'” are generally regarded as helping to create the “California” sound that came to be in the 1960s. The group were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and both hits were inducted into the RockHall in the Song category. They are usually spoken of in the same reverent tones as other 1960s Folk-Rock stars like Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. But, the funny thing is that, aside from those two big hits, The Mamas and the Papas were actually known more for the salacious nature of their behaviour than for their musical success. This is so much so that any discussion of their career is likely to read as much like tabloid gossip as it is to be a scholarly essay. But, such is life on the big stage. Here is the story of The Mamas and the Papas, warts and all.

Like most musical groups, The Mamas and the Papas came together fortuitously. John and Michelle Phillips sang in various small, unsuccessful bands; eventually, leaving California and moving to New York City in hopes of finding better luck there. While in NYC, Michelle, in particular, came to dislike how harsh and cold the winters were, compared to being in L.A. She developed a severe case of homesickness. However, it wasn’t practical for them to simply pull up roots and head back to sunny California without having given NYC its full shot simply because Michelle didn’t like the weather. So, in order to placate her somewhat, John began working on a song about someone longing for California and all that it entailed. That song turned out to be, “California Dreaming'”. The first verse captures Michelle’s mood very well.

All the leaves were brown

And the sky was grey.

I went for a walk

On a Winter’s day.

I’d be safe and warm

If I was in L.A.

California dreamin’

On such a Winter’s day.

The next verse, about walking into a church was autobiographically as well, because Michelle Phillips was an admirer of the architecture of cathedrals and, as such, she would often visit stately churches, because she found their construction to be aesthetically pleasing.

So, in any case, John Phillips got them a gig as back up singers for an established music star named Barry McGuire *(who had a big hit with a song called, “Eve of Destruction”). As part of becoming involved with the session singers at a company called, Dunhill Records, the Phillips met a young lady with a very unique voice called, Cass Elliott. They became friends. Eventually, they started hanging out socially, at which time, John showed Cass the song he had written called, “California Dreaming'”. She thought it was great and asked to help sing it. With the extra voice, the song started to become more like the version we all know; with harmonies galore, voices weaving in and out and around each other. The trio came to hire a fourth singer, a male, who ended up not lasting. That brought them to a man from Canada named Denny Doherty. With Denny’s inclusion, the group was complete.

The four back up singers were hired to sing on Barry McGuire’s latest song. When they were finished, they asked if they could sing their own song, as an audition, for Barry and for the producer. So, they did. Barry McGuire was impressed and asked to record the song, himself, so the group agreed to let the “star” have their song. He recorded “California Dreaming'” first, with the original Mamas and Papas were listed as mere back up singers. When that session was over, the producer suggested that they record their own version, just to see how it sounded. So, they did that, too. Needless to say, their version outshone that of Barry McGuire which, in turn, caused a dilemma for the record company. They finally decided to go with the new kids in town and released “California Deamin'” as the debut single from a group that, up until that moment, didn’t even have a name. They opted for the Mamas and the Papas because Cass Elliott read somewhere that Hells Angels “biker chicks” were called “Mamas” and thought that she would like to be called “Mama”, too. And, if she and Michelle were to be “Mamas”, it only made sense that the boys would be “Papas” so, they became, The Mamas and the Papas…..and their career took off.

Sudden fame is usually not a good thing for those who are young, inexperienced and innocent-minded. The group signed a record deal that, essentially, gave away most of their royalties to Dunhill Records. As they toured around, the band were responsible for paying for many things that the record company should have had responsibility for, such as promotion, wardrobe, sheet music, etc. Consequently, although The Mamas and the Papas had a huge, decade-defining hit on their hands, they did not become rich from it. As their disillusionment with the music industry began to settle in, they each started to drift into abhorrent behaviour. Denny Doherty moved into the home of John and Michelle Phillips and, in due time, began having an affair with Michelle. John Phillips developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol and was having regular run-ins with the Police all over the world. Mama Cass developed a drug addiction, as well, and, in addition, she started having very poor eating habits which caused her weight to balloon to dangerous levels for her health. As time went by, Denny Doherty moved out, Michelle Phillips had more affairs and was fired from the band, her replacement lasted two months and was fired, with Michelle being re-hired, all the while, John Phillips was often in a drug-induced stupor. Mama Cass left the group while on one final European tour and began, what started out being, a successful solo career. Unfortunately, she died of a heart attack not long after. In fact, Michelle Phillips is the only member of The Mamas and the Papas who remains alive today. In between then and now, all members of the group released tell-all books that were described by outside observers as reading like the “depositions at a divorce proceeding”.

All of this strikes an ironic chord in me because, of all of the songs that came to define the 1960s and the early days of Rock n’ Roll, “California Dreaming'” is the one that sounds the most tranquil and relaxing and blissful, almost. And yet, the lives and career of the band failed to adhere to their own song’s advice of longing for the simple things in life such as being “safe and warm”. Of all of the groups that made it big, The Mamas and the Papas serve as a cautionary tale that the music industry can be a dangerous place for those unprepared to deal with the demands that come with success. Fame and fortune can be fleeting if you don’t have your feet firmly rooted to the ground. As we saw in the beginning, John and Michelle Phillips had left their home in search of a dream and, as such, they had no firm foundation to stand on and keep them rooted in the familiar feel of Home. Fortunately for all of us, they have left us two beautiful songs to enjoy and to remember them by.

So, without further delay, here are The Mamas and the Papas, in all of their youthful vigour, with their first big hit, “California Dreaming'”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “California Dreaming'” by The Mamas and the Papas, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Mamas and the Paps, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “California Dreaming'”, as sung by Barry McGuire, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Barry McGuire, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

2 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #34: California Dreaming’ by The Mamas and the Papas (RS)”

    1. In fact, between the time of their breakup and his death in 2007, I believe, Doherty came back to Canada and was involved in many Canadian cultural things such as the Theodore Tugboat tv series, as well as, the Pit Pony series which, for an additional, bonus connection, was based on a story of a herd of ponies that used to work in the coal mines of the town I grew up in, Glace Bay, NS.

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