Celebrating Mama Cass Elliot Birthday

The famous The Mamas & The Papas singer was born on this day in 1941

Celebrating Mama Cass Elliot Birthday

Mama Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19th, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. Elliot adopted the name “Cass” in high school, possibly borrowing it from actress Peggy Cass,as Denny Doherty tells it. She assumed the surname Elliot some time later, in memory of a friend who had died. While in Alexandria, Virginia, Elliot attended George Washington High School, which Jim Morrison of the Doors also attended. After leaving high school to pursue an entertainment career in New York, Elliot toured in the musical “The Music Man” but lost the part of Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” to Barbra Streisand in 1962. She moved to New York’s Greenwhich Village where America’s folk music scene was on the rise and where she met banjoist and singer Tim Rose and singer John Brown, the three began performing as the Triumvirate. In 1963, James Hendricks replaced Brown, and the trio was renamed the Big 3. Elliot’s first recording with the Big 3 was “Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod”, released by FM Records in 1963. In 1964, the group appeared on an “open mic” night at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, billed as “Cass Elliot and the Big 3”.Tim Rose left the Big 3 in 1964, and Elliot and Hendricks teamed with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty to form the Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Cass performed as a solo act for a while. In the meantime, Yanovsky and John Sebastian co-founded the Lovin’ Spoonful, while Doherty joined the New Journeymen, a group that also included John Phillips and his wife Michelle. In 1965, Doherty persuaded Phillips that Elliot should join the group, which she did while she and the group members were vacationing in the Virgin Islands. With two female members, the New Journeymen needed a new name. According to Doherty, Elliot had the inspiration for the band’s new name, The Mamas & The Papas. Doherty also said that the occasion marked the beginning of his affair with Michelle Phillips. Elliot was in love with Doherty and was displeased when he told her of the affair. Doherty has said that Elliot once proposed to him, but that he was so stoned at the time that he could not even respond. Elliot was known for her sense of humor and optimism, and was considered by some to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her powerful, distinctive voice was a major factor in their success. She is best remembered for her vocals on the group’s hits “California Dreamin'”, “Monday, Monday”, “Words of Love”, and the solo “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, which the group recorded in 1968. The band enjoyed a successful career, being one of the biggest household names worldwide during the late 1960’s and scoring a string of hits such as the already mentioned “California Dreamin'”, “Monday, Monday”, “Words of Love”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me and also “I Call Your Name”, “Trip, Stumble and Fall”, “Dancing in the Street”,”I Saw Her Again”, “Dedicated to the One I Love”, “Creeque Alley”, “For the Love of Ivy” and “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” among many others.They broke up in 1971.

Solo career and TV

After the breakup of the Mamas & the Papas, Elliot embarked on a solo singing career. Her most successful recording during this period was 1968’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” from her solo album of the same name, released by Dunhill Records. But Elliot’s solo career and projects started while she was still in The Mamas & The Papas. In 1969 she scored a hit with one of her most famous solo songs “Make Your Own Kind Of Music” But before,  in October 1968, Elliot made her live solo debut headlining in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace where she signed a three-week engagement playing two shows a night, the opening concert was however one of the most disastrous ones she ever did, and became known as The Las Vegas Inccident, Elliot went on a six-month long crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. According to Elliot, the weight loss led to a stomach ulcer and throat problems, which she treated by drinking milk and cream (and regaining 50 pounds in the process). Within hours of the end of Elliot’s Las Vegas concert, rumors began to spread that she had been taking drugs during the weeks leading up to it. Eddi Fiegel wrote in the biography “Dream a Little Dream of Me” that Elliot later admitted to a boyfriend that she had shot heroin immediately before going on stage. Embarrassed by the debacle, Elliot plunged into a deep depression. According to friend David Crosby “Cass took lots of pills, usually from the opiate family: Dilaudid, Demerol, Percodan, downers of all sorts, and we did a lot of coke together”.  Elliot appeared in two television variety specials: The Mama Cass Television Show (ABC, 1969) and Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore (CBS, 1973). She was a regular guest on TV talk shows and variety shows in the early 1970s. Elliot was married twice, the first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her groupmate in the Big 3 and the Mugwumps. This was reportedly a platonic arrangement to assist him in avoiding being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War, the marriage reportedly was never consummated and was annulled in 1968. In 1971, Elliot married journalist Donald von Wiedenman, heir to a Bavarian barony. Their marriage ended in divorce after a few months. Elliot gave birth to daughter Owen Vanessa Elliot on April 26, 1967  and she never publicly identified the father.

Death and Legacy

In July 1974, Elliot performed two weeks of concerts as a solo performer at the London Palladium. Many claimed that all of these shows were sold out, but she was often playing to a less-than-full house after the earliest dates. She made an international call to Michelle Phillips after the final concert on July 28. Phillips said later that Elliot sounded elated that she had received standing ovations each night. She may have retired for the evening immediately after this telephone conversation, but Debbie Reynolds claimed in her 2013 book “Unsinkable: A Memoir” that she and her children Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher saw Elliot attend a party that night at the London home of Mick Jagger. Reynolds added that some guests at the party used cocaine and other hard drugs on an upper floor of the home to which Reynolds made sure her children, ages 17 and 16, did not go. Jagger told Reynolds about the situation upstairs, adding that if her children stayed on the ground floor, they would be safe.  Because neither Reynolds nor her children saw who partook of the free drugs, Elliot’s presence at the party may be inconsequential in understanding her death. That night, Elliot, age 32, died in her sleep at the London flat where she was staying. According to forensic pathologist Keith Simpson who conducted her autopsy, her death was due to “heart failure due to fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity.” A drug screen that was part of the forensic autopsy revealed there were no drugs in her system. Elliot died in Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place (later Curzon Square), Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London, which was on loan from singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. Four years later, the Who’s drummer Keith Moon died in the same room, also aged 32 years. Mama Cass Elliot continues to be one of the most popular and iconic 60’s and pop singers of all time. Her recognizable vocals that helped so many of The Mamas & The Papas songs achieving popularity still influence generations of singers as well as her upbeat and positive image.

Watch Mama Cass Elliot performing “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” on the Smothers Brothers Show in 1968

Listen to a selection of The Mamas & The Papas and Mama Cass Elliot songs compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify

Watch more 1960’s related videos


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