1960s Siren Baltimore's Cass Elliot spoke to a generation with her music, and now her voice is being heard again.


Clarifications to the Legend of Mama Cass Elliot:

No. 1. Mama Cass Elliot did not die choking on a ham sandwich.

No. 2. Mama Cass Elliot was hit on the head by a pipe, but it did not have the effect, as the Mamas and Papas repeated ad infinitum, of expanding her vocal range.

No. 3. When Mama Cass Elliot was a sophomore, she didn't plan to go to Swarthmore, as the lyrics to "Creeque Alley" claim. Goucher was a more likely choice, but it didn't rhyme.

No. 4. Mama Cass Elliot's daughter was not immaculately conceived as Mama Cass Elliot announced.

No. 5. Mama Cass Elliot was her stage name, but she hated -- hated -- being called Mama Cass.

John and Michie were gettin' kind of itchie just to leave the folk music behind;

Zol and Denny, workin' for a penny, tryin' to get a fish on the line *

Well before Monterey, the Summer of Love and "California Dreamin'," Denny Doherty stood outside a Greenwich Village club wondering who could belt out a torch song so forcefully that he could hear every note, every inflection, out on Bleeker Street.

He peered through the window. Onstage was a squat, bulbous young woman in a blue taffeta gown with dark hair sculpted high on her head. The look was comical; her singing was not. So powerful was her contralto, so achingly heartfelt, that her two male accompanists might as well have been mutes. You couldn't mistake the joy in her face.

As Doherty stared at her, he gradually noticed that she was watching him, too. And he thought he detected something mirthful in her expression, as though she were thinking, "It's not every day you come across a 300-pound ingenue, is it?"

He would never forget that night, the first time he laid eyes on Cass Elliot.

Doherty made at least as strong an impression on her. She fell hard, which she first confessed to him on a rooftop in Gramercy Park while the theme from "Peyton Place" played on a portable record player. That unrequited romance would be the sorrow of Cass Elliot's improbable, 32-year-long dalliance on this planet. It would also have consequences for the listening pleasure of the English-speaking world and beyond.

That would be later, though, when Denny and Cass were the most distinctive voices of the Mamas and the Papas, one of the seminal American pop bands toward the end of rock and roll's childhood years.

Cass, an Earth Mother in a muumuu, was the group's central personality, its sassy, glittering show-woman. Young men may have lusted after the pouty beauty of Michelle Phillips, but it was screams of "Mama Cass" that resounded from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl.

"Cass, I love you," they'd call.

"Dynamite," she'd vamp. "Where're you staying?"

The group's harmonizing embodied the laid-back, self-absorbed portion of the '60s, the time before anger crowded out much of everything else. The group thrived during the 10 minutes or so when you could say, "Groovy, man," without being a perfect fool; a period when sex, drugs, and rock and roll were a lifestyle, not a cliche. Certainly it was the lifestyle of the Mamas and the Papas.

All of it was something of a canard -- Flower Power, hippiedom, the Youth Culture. Love and self-realization were as tricky during the '60s as any other time, something Cass Elliot could attest to, had she lived.

If you've been paying close attention, you are aware of Cass Elliot's presence among us again 23 years after her death in a London hotel room. A covered version of her "Dream a Little Dream" is now getting air time, and a remixed "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is popular in Los Angeles and New York dance clubs. Her singing, brimming with an optimism and self-acceptance she never fully embraced herself, is the soundtrack of the recent movie "Beautiful Thing." Denny Doherty has produced a play about her. Michelle Phillips has a screenplay in the works.

And this spring, MCA, after the success of its 1991 Mamas and Papas collection, released a Cass Elliot CD containing 16 titles. Its co-producer: Cass' daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell. Its first cut: "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore."

Hearing that voice again conjures an image to smile at, a bold, bawdy cushion of a woman. But there's a wistfulness in her singing, too. For all the adulation, celebrity and riches, Cass Elliot remained "this fat kid from Baltimore."

In the coffeehouse Sebastian sat, and after every number they passed the hat

She didn't begin as Mama Cass, or as Cass Elliot for that matter. Once she was Ellen Naomi, Bess and Philip Cohen's oldest child, who dreamed a little dream of one day being Mary Martin or perhaps Ethel Merman on the Broadway stage. Little did she know she was destined for a far more original role as one of the first made-for-rock female personas.

It seemed an unlikely destiny for an overweight Jewish girl who spent her childhood flitting between Alexandria, Va., and Baltimore, pulled along by her father's various half-baked business schemes. Eventually he outfitted retired city buses as kitchens and drove them onto construction sites -- Mondawmin Mall was one -- to feed the workers. "Meals on wheels for schlemiels," Cass called it.

Cass -- a nickname her father gave her -- was at Forest Park High School then. "She was brilliant and quick," says Leah Kunkel, her younger sister, who is now a lawyer in Massachusetts. "My mother once told me her IQ was something like 190."

In 1960, at age 17, she took a dare and won the role of the French maid in a summer-stock production of "The Boy Friend" at Owings Mills Playhouse. She performed the part with her braces sparkling in the footlights.

Convinced that Broadway was her destiny, she soon was making the rounds of agents and auditions in New York. She directed a play -- at the Cafe La Mama -- and nearly landed a role in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale." The part instead became the launching pad of Barbra Streisand's career. As for Cass, she hooked on with a touring company of "The Music Man."

In Washington, a songwriting friend persuaded her to join him on the folk-music circuit. They were soon joined by a third singer, Jim Hendricks, whom Cass later married for the sole purpose of keeping him out of the draft. They called themselves "The Big Three," a misnomer because Cass' voice was so dominating. "She sang like a black girl," recalls Michelle. "Very bluesy and soulfully."

Following the usual folkie migration pattern, the Big Three gravitated to New York's Greenwich Village around 1964 and then dissolved. Bands were in constant flux, like unstable chemical compositions with various elements breaking off and regrouping with others.

Smitten with Doherty, a Nova Scotian with a supple tenor, Cass persuaded him to join her new group, the Mugwumps, which at one point also included John Sebastian and Zalman Yanovsky. When the latter two broke off to form the Lovin' Spoonful, Cass drifted off into a jazz trio. Denny joined John Phillips, a dour, rail-thin songwriter from Alexandria, Va., and his beautiful young wife, Michelle, who sang in a fragile, lilting soprano.

In the early '60s, the Village was a caldron of musical and comedic talent, filled with the likes of Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Bob Dylan. "Any corner of Greenwich Village, you could see people on their way to the next gig in a coffeehouse," recalls Doherty.

But in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," the folk scene began to ebb. "It was obvious it wasn't going anywhere," says Doherty from his home in Toronto. "We could not have kept singing 'I'm a little beggar man, a beggar I have been.' Folk music was dead."

When the Phillipses were evicted from their New York apartment, they decided to celebrate by heading to the Virgin Islands. Doherty joined them, and Cass, ever hopeful of winning Denny's heart, followed.

She was wasting her time. "Cass loved me," says Doherty. "We weren't the item she wanted to be, but she figured if I was close enough, maybe one day we would be."

On the islands, they lived in tents, played music and otherwise indulged themselves. "The drug use was limited to psychedelics and pot and alcohol," says Michelle. "There was no cocaine around. Thank God. We would have gotten nothing done."

John, who was writing songs at a furious pace, discouraged Cass' joining the group. To this day, he insists she couldn't hit the high notes, until, that is, a pipe fell on her head at a construction site in the islands and miraculously expanded her range.

Denny always believed the real reason was that John was repelled by Cass' appearance, but Michelle probably comes closer to the truth. "John was afraid of her," she says. "She was strongly opinionated. She had her own ideas about what she wanted to sing and how."

Toward the end of 1965, they were thrown out of St. Thomas, apparently because of their drug use. Cass ended up at the Los Angeles home of Hendricks, her "husband." The others soon hit town, and tried to peddle two of John's new songs, "California Dreamin' " and "Monday Monday." No one was interested.

When they ran out of money, they showed up at Cass'. As their host, she could no longer be stopped from singing with them. "All of a sudden, we're at her place and this sound happens," says Denny, "this Mamas and Papas sound. Even John couldn't deny it. He started tinkering, saying, 'Hey, if Cass sings here, Michie, you try singing there, and Denny you move up there.' That's how it happened."

Barry McGuire, fresh off his monster hit "Eve of Destruction," invited them to a recording session. His producer, Lou Adler, the founder of Dunhill Records, remembers his amazement at their appearance -- filthy, garish and every size and shape. Their music was even more stunning. "I've always related that to how George Martin felt when he heard the Beatles for the first time," he says.

By the end of the day, Adler had them signed to their first deal. Michelle was 21; Cass, 22; Denny, 24; and John, 30. Based on how they looked and sounded, Adler also had the title of their first album: "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Your Ears."

Their success was nearly instantaneous. "California Dreamin'," released in December 1965, hit the top spot by March. "Monday, Monday," out shortly after, was an immediate top-seller. In a remarkable stretch from early 1966 until the end of 1967, the Mamas and the Papas had nine songs in the Top 40, six in the top five.

They benefited from being Americans at the height of the British invasion, but they also had a distinctive folk-rock sound that featured both male and female voices. Their music was catchy and eminently singable even if the lyrics were often soft-headed. Life proclaimed them "the most inventive pop musical group around and the first really new vocal sound since the Beatles."

"As far as Americans go, no one was bigger," says Adler. "It was them and Simon and Garfunkel."

Their mixture of psychedelic dress, deadpan cool and dramatic excess was irresistible to the American media. The group lived in mansions and dressed in fur coats and mink hats. They flew Learjets and drove Jaguars and Aston Martins. Stories had them buying cars with shoe boxes full of cash.

They rubbed shoulders -- and shared pipes -- with the biggest names in rock. Paul, John, Mick. Graham Nash and David Crosby supposedly met at Cass' lavish Sunset Strip house, the one once occupied by Natalie Wood. A young Joni Mitchell played in her living room. Jack Nicholson was a regular.

Saucy and outrageous, Cass was by far the most popular member of the group, a born performer. One minute she was seductively purring "I Call Your Name" on the apron of the Carnegie Hall stage, the next flirting with Ed Sullivan or posing nude in a field of daisies for a satirical magazine.

"When we would come out on stage people would be screaming for her -- and for me, too," says Michelle, "but she was definitely the star of the group."

Her wit was sometimes painfully self-revealing. "It's easy to find boyfriends," she once said. "I buy them a motorcycle and a leather suit and put them in acting school."

Another time, while being interviewed in her bed, Cass flipped through a magazine picturing Jackie Onassis. "I wonder what I'd look like thin," she told the reporter.

McGuinn and McGuire just a gettin' higher in L.A., you know where that's at

From the beginning, Adler appreciated the combustible quality of the Mamas and the Papas. "I said early on to John that musically they could go on forever," he said recently. "Their personalities and conflicts would be what would bring them down."

By the time Adler confided in Phillips, it was already too late. The group was in the process of self-destructing. Too many ids spoiling the music. Cass loved Denny, Denny loved Michelle, and Michelle loved anyone who wasn't John. The Mamas and the Papas, it seemed, could sing about love. They just couldn't manage it.

To Michelle, Cass was both revelation and mentor. "I had been with John since two weeks after I turned 17. She tried to help me see myself as separate from him. She thought, and rightly so, that John was very controlling, and that I had to get a life outside my marriage to John."

She acted on Cass' advice, but in the one way that could hurt Cass the deepest: She and Denny had an affair. "It had incensed her, and it hurt her very deeply," said Michelle, "and she felt once again the hopelessness of her love for Denny and felt betrayed by me."

Cass threw herself into a series of empty affairs, one of which produced a daughter, Owen. But working with Michelle and Denny while also submitting to John's autocracy all proved too much. Finally, at the end of 1967, after John pointedly corrected her in front of Mick Jagger, Cass quit the group. She would make it on her own, she said.

Thirty years later, the surviving members agree: Staying together -- though it meant fame and fortune -- was far more painful than splitting up. "I was so happy when that group was over," says Michelle, who became fast friends with Cass again after her own daughter, Chynna Phillips, was born in 1968.

The Mamas and the Papas existed for less than two years.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

You're going to trip, stumble and fall," goes the lyric in one of the Mamas and the Papas' last hits. That's what they all did after the group disbanded.

John and Michelle divorced two years after the band broke up. Michelle sang for a while, disappeared from view and then re-emerged as a successful television actress. One of the archetypes of the '60s youth culture, she now plays the mother of a Generation X-er on "Beverly Hills 90210."

John's long drug addiction destroyed his musical promise. Though clean now, his junkie days cost him his liver and indirectly led to two hip replacements. The '60s are dead, man.

Denny's musical career foundered, too, but he reinvented himself in Canadian television, and now does the voices in a popular children's puppet show. He also tours occasionally with a group that calls itself the Mamas and Papas and reprises their songs. He sounds rueful when he talks about Cass now. "She always said, 'Marry me, Denny, I can make you happy.' But at the time, I wasn't man enough to consider it. Too young and stupid."

Cass enjoyed success as a solo act, but only after a spectacularly horrendous start. Her debut -- at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, of all places -- coincided with a case of tonsillitis. Her voice was a scratchy hiss, and she listed under the effects of Demerol.

The Los Angeles Times called Cass' performance "painful," but what must have hurt more was the reviewer's baleful reminder that in the not too distant past, Cass had been "glittering, stunning and magnificent."

She went broke. Her Aston Martin was repossessed; she had to return the sable.

But she wasn't forgotten. She started appearing on television again, sporadically and then constantly. She was on all the variety shows: Carol Burnett, Tom Jones, Dinah Shore. She was host of "The Tonight Show" a dozen times and several of her own specials. There was talk of a situation comedy. She was also recording, mainly fluff, but her albums were finding a market.

She had mixed feelings about the success. She didn't enjoy hard work, and her health was never good, particularly after putting herself on a starvation diet. She lost 110 pounds in one stretch, bringing her down to 175. But the diet made her sick, and the weight didn't stay off.

"She hated performing, she really did," says Donald Von Wiedenman, a writer who met Cass on an interview in 1968 and married her in 1971. "But she loved the adulation. She craved it; couldn't be without it." Her desire to keep performing, Von Wiedenman says, cost them their marriage, which ended after only five months.

"She really hated being the butt of all these fat jokes, but on the other hand she knew that was the source of her success," says Von Wiedenman, "She would do those jokes on Carol Burnett and then be depressed afterward."

In her interviews then, Cass spoke of wanting to save enough so she could stay home with her daughter. As it was, Owen says, Cass was always on the road, leaving her to be raised by a string of governesses. Owen never knew who her father was until she turned 18 and asked Michelle to help her find out. He turned out to have been a former Mamas and Papas bass player who had been with the group only long enough to make Cass Elliot a mama.

Those who knew her believe Cass Elliot would have been on the entertainment landscape for many years, a musical comedian a la Bette Midler. "She was as good as Streisand and she was as good as Joplin," says John Phillips. "She could have done anything."

In July 1974, her arc was still ascending as she finished a triumphant two-week engagement at the Palladium, one of London's classiest venues. The performances began with Cass, in a beaded gown, being lifted onto the stage by an elevator. She looked like a pink sunrise. "The place went nuts," recalls Alan Carr, her manager. "George Harrison was there. Ringo was there. All the pop stars from the '70s were there. It was very emotional and very exciting."

After her last performances at the Palladium, with the applause still ringing in her ears, she called Von Wiedenman and John Phillips. "She was really thrilled; the critics had loved her," says John.

On her way out of the dressing room that night, she scrawled a message on the mirror to Debbie Reynolds, who was to appear next. "If they are half as nice to you as they were to me, you'll have the best time of your life," she wrote.

The next day, she was dead.

Carr told the press that she had choked on a ham sandwich, which gave the entire planet a chuckle and created the most enduring myth about Mama Cass Elliot. Carr says his information came from the coroner, who did find a sandwich on the bedside table. Owen believes Carr was trying to protect Cass from inevitable rumors of a drug overdose.

A week later, the coroner reported that Cass had suffered a massive heart attack, caused by her great weight. Few newspapers bothered to report the clarification. The world still mostly believes it was the ham sandwich.

"The only good saving grace is knowing she went to sleep that night with wonderful thoughts about herself," says John.

Perhaps she contemplated the remarkable trajectory of her life that night, the singular trip she had taken from Baltimore to the Palladium. And if she did, maybe she felt a measure of satisfaction. As Papa Denny observed not long ago, "She played the part of Cass Elliot very well for a girl named Naomi Cohen."

* Lyrics from the song "Creeque Alley," 1967.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from "Dream A Little Dream -- The Cass Elliot Collection," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6115. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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