Meet Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas —The Queen of Folk Rock

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Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas chatted about her illustrious career in the music and recording industry.

The Mamas & The Papas was comprised of principal songwriter John Phillips on vocals and guitar, Michelle on vocals, Denny Doherty as the lead tenor, and contralto Cass Elliot.

“I get a lot of attention for being a member of The Mamas & The Papas, and I really appreciate it,” she said. That was 2.5 years of my life, but the whole story is longer than that. It was such an amazing period of my life; it all happened in the blink of an eye.”  

Phillips continued, “It was a lot of fun but there was a lot of drama, and as a matter of fact, as soon as we got the drama under control there was no more creativity in it, there was no more writing about our drama. It was just amazing to really come from the folk scene, which I was dragged into.”

“I wasn’t a singer, I married John when I was 18 years old, but I was a model and quite happy to be a model. John told me that when he was going to put his group together and that I was going to be in it, and I was horrified because I did not have any ambition at all to be a singer,” she said. 

“John told me I sing just fine, so he made every effort to prepare me to get on stage,” she said. “I studied voice with Judy Davis in San Francisco, and when I was in New York, I would study voice with Bert Knapp. They were probably the best vocal coaches on either coast, and pretty soon I was singing, and it was fun. John made it my job to help write. He always loved having someone write with him, he always preferred that,” she elaborated. 

She also shared that she helped him co-write their hit single “California Dreamin’” at his request. “John told me I would thank him for that someday, and I do every day,” she said with a sweet laugh. 

The Mamas and the Papas broke up in 1968 due to infighting after recording their fourth album “The Papas & the Mamas.” They broke up over attending a Beatles concert at The Hollywood Bowl.

They reunited briefly in 1971 to cut “People Like Us” to meet a contractual obligation and subsequently disbanded to pursue solo careers. 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 

In 1998, The Mamas & The Papas were inducted into the coveted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by Shania Twain. The group is credited for capturing the essence, sound, and spirit of the West Coast. 

What made them stand out was the mix of male (John Phillips, Denny Doherty) and female (Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips) voices. Combined with their sharp songwriting and arrangements from Phillips and musical contributions from some of Los Angeles’ finest session musicians, they cut some of the most unforgettable songs of the ’60s. Their intricate arrangements became an emblem of their time. 

“California Dreamin’” endures as an anthem of those heady times. The Mamas and the Papas were a major part of the Southern California pop scene of the mid to late ’60s. Along with the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Turtles and the Association, they bombarded the Top 40 with their well-crafted folk-pop songs couples with lush harmonies. 

“It was not easy,” she said. “By the time that I had realized that we had been eligible for a nomination for five years and we hadn’t been nominated, I called Jann Wenner and I asked him why we weren’t nominated. Jann told me that John made so many enemies in the business, and I reminded him that it shouldn’t be political, and it should be based on talent.”  

She continued, “I told Jann that maybe he should only nominate The Mamas. I told him that it wasn’t fair because even though John made enemies, I didn’t, and neither did Cass [Elliot] or Denny [Doherty].”  

“Eventually though, we got the nomination, and we were in,” she acknowledged. 

“Monday Monday” 

While “Monday Monday” was a chart-topping single, she noted that she initially didn’t like the song. “As a matter of fact, none of us did,” she admitted. “I remember when he was writing it while I was at my godmother’s house.”  

“John always had his guitar strapped to him,” she said. “John said he wanted to write a song with universal appeal, we thought that was hilarious, and a few minutes later, he did. While we didn’t care for it at first, we sang it for Lou Adler, and he thought it was beautiful. We put a track down, and Lou told us it was going to be our next single.” 

“When ‘Monday Monday’ was released, it came on the charts at No. 1,” Phillips said. “All of a sudden, all of us loved the song and we thought it was brilliant. We were complete hypocrites telling the press how wonderful we thought it was. In fact, it was our only No. 1 song. In the end, we all did learn to love the song.” 

Advice for hopefuls in music 

For young and aspiring singer-songwriters, Phillips said with a sweet laugh, “Get lucky.” “Also, learn how to play an instrument, and if you want to sing, take some vocal lessons and learn how to sing.”

“Most importantly, get a friend that wants to write with you and write some songs because that’s what It’s all about. Having material and always find a great tenor, especially if you are not going to be the tenor yourself,” she said.

“Finally, find a great contralto like Cass, she was the greatest. She really had no desire to be a pop singer at all, Cass wanted to be on Broadway, but the audience loved Cass and she was the star of the show. She had the audience in the palm of her hand from the very first time that we ever sang,” Phillips elaborated.

Success 

On her definition of the word success, Phillips said, “Being rewarded for your work, and learning how to do something and having a lot of luck too. There are a lot of very talented people that never had the success they deserve.”

“There are also people that are not very talented but they have their own kind of success. We certainly did, and people loved our music. We had a wonderful time during The Mamas & The Papas,” she added.

Fans 

For their fans, she remarked, “Thank you for accepting us and loving our music, and thank you for making the word ‘publishing’ one of my favorite words. To think that 55 years later, the music is still being licensed and covered is just wonderful.”

“We are just covered over and over again. ‘Monday Monday’ is one of the most covered songs ever, it has been so great. It keeps the whole history of The Mamas & The Papas alive and still work in 2023,” she concluded. 

Read more: https://www.digitaljournal.com/entertainment/meet-michelle-phillips-of-the-mamas-the-papas-the-queen-of-folk-rock/article#ixzz7wnjnsUER

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