Although their career barely spanned five years The Mamas & the Papas’ superb blend of traditional American folk music and the emerging pop beat sounds made sure that while they were hardly ‘hip’ in the jargon of the era at least, in the first instance, that didn’t matter because they forged a truly individual sound. Basing their bag on glorious four part harmonies, sweet semi-acoustic melodies and the brilliant song writing of leader John Phillips – with fellow members Mama Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips providing the visual foil to John’s upright qualities – the group released five studio albums and enjoyed a string of single hits, not to mention combined sales of 40 million records worldwide.
Happenstance or being in the right place at the right time are a prerequisite in most pop music histories but The Mamas & the Papas tale is particularly based on the fates. In 1965 husband and wife team John and Michelle Phillips were part of a folksy act The New Journeymen, with Canadian Denny Doherty. Denny had joined them after being in an early folk rock band with Cass Elliot and others called The Mugwumps. As Cass put it, The Mugwumps were just “too much before their time.” Cass was doing occasional solo gigs and singing standards after The Mugwumps disbanded. Once they cohered it was an odd combo (to say the least) because John had to be persuaded to embrace the then-new sounds of the British invasion but would later become one of the most ‘out there’ cats in California. But we digress…still nominally Journeymen, the foursome spent a few weeks slumming it in the Virgin Islands perfecting a more electric noise. Another slice of luck arrived when they met up with Lou Adler, co-owner of Dunhill Records, who became manager, mentor, and producer while landing the group a five-album deal.
Eventually settling on the new name The Mama’s and the Papa’s ( that’s how it appeared) for debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears – and by the way, that was ‘Mamas’ as in what Hells Angels called their ‘old ladies’ – Phillips and company hit the ground running. Not only did the album soar to the top of the charts for a week in May 1966, the two hits, “California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday” established them as an instant smash success. You couldn’t argue with that sound; it had a similar effect as the mass adulation awarded The Beatles, whose Paul McCartney was incidentally a great fan.
Adler’s spot on crisp production and the ready-made brilliance of those blood-line harmonies were also allied to a good-feel factor that appealed across the board. What was not to like?