Mama Cass Elliot, a founding member of the popular 1960s folk rock band The Mamas & the Pappas was known for her ethereal harmonies and solos and strong stage presence.
While attending high school, she worked for The Jewish Times and later in classified advertising for The Baltimore Sun from which she was “supposedly let go for talking too much,” the newspaper reported at her death in 1974.
But high school wasn’t her thing and though she was due to graduate in 1959, she dropped out.
“I got bored with the whole thing and two weeks before graduation I took off,” she told The Sun in a 1973 interview. “I was doing a lot of driving around and hanging out.”
While her parents dreamed of her attending college and becoming a doctor or a lawyer, that was the farthest thing from Elliot’s mind. She hoped to become an actress, a vocational path her mother and father found particularly abhorrent.
After performing locally, she went to New York City where she worked in off-Broadway plays, and began her singing career not long afterward with The Big Three. Elliot then joined the Mugwumps, which also included James R. Hendricks, whom she married in 1963, and later divorced in 1969.
In 1965, she joined John Phillips and Michelle Gilliam, who would marry Phillips, to form The Mamas and the Pappas, which found instant acceptance with such hits as “Monday, Monday,” and “California Dreamin.”
“The group achieved almost immediate success with a light, airy vocal style to which Miss Elliot’s nasal but clear voice, and imposing stage presence, added considerably,” observed The Sun.
Elliot, who stood 5-foot-5 and became known as Mama Cass Elliot, had suffered from a weight problem most of her life, fluctuating between 190 and 250 pounds. On stage she was a compelling figure and consummate entertainer as she swayed to the music dressed in her trademark muumuus while playing foil to Michelle Phillips.
“You’d never mistake me for Jane Fonda,” she told a reporter.
“However, she struck a telling blow for fat people during that period when she posed nude for a centerfold in Cheetah, a now defunct pseudo-hip teen magazine,” reported The Evening Sun.
She married a second time, Donald von Wiedenman, a German baron, and that marriage ended in divorce in 1972.
After the breakup of The Mamas and the Papas in 1968, Elliot pursued a solo career and performed at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where she was paid $40,000 a week, did TV specials, filled in for Johnny Carson, and recorded several records.
She also sought to distance herself from being called Mama Cass but to audiences and fans across the world she’d always be Mama Cass.
“I’m not everybody’s Mama,” she told a reporter. “I don’t mind if people call me by my first name, but when they call me Miss Cass or Miss Mama, yuk, say, hey, Miss Mama.”
In August 1973, Mayor William Donald Schaefer invited Elliot to Baltimore to receive a key to the city and her belated Forest Park High School diploma.
Cass Elliot Day was held downtown Aug. 15 with a parade, and the highlight of the afternoon was Schaefer’s presentation of a diploma to Elliot who was wearing a gown and mortarboard.
“I always feel very warm when I think of Baltimore,” she told The Evening Sun at the time.
Less than a year later, Elliot, who had been performing at the London Palladium, was found dead on July 29, 1974, in the Mayfair apartment of a friend, “propped up in bed, a ham sandwich and a soft drink beside her and the TV set on,” reported The Sun.
It was later revealed that the cause of death was from a heart attack.
Elliot who was 32, was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.