John Phillips had been active on the New York music scene since 1957. In 1962, he met Holly Michelle Gilliam who had come to New York to be a model. She started singing with John's group, The Journeymen and soon after, became his second wife.
Denny Doherty had been a member of The Halifax Three, which, after two albums for Epic, included future Lovin' Spoonful member Zal Yanovsky. Doherty and Yanovsky joined Cass Elliot and her first husband, Jim Hendricks to form Cass Elliot and the Big Three. The group later changed its name to the Mugwumps and went electric, with Art Stokes on drums and John Sebastian on harmonica. The Mugwumps recorded one album, which was not released until 1967, and broke up. Sebastian and Yanovsky formed The Lovin' Spoonful, Elliot fronted a jazz trio and Doherty joined John and Michelle Phillips as The New Journeymen.
The New Journeymen relocated to California, where they stayed with Elliot and Hendricks and Cass officially joined the group. Before landing their own recording contract, the quartet did some backing vocals for Barrie McGuire.
The group's first album, "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears", contained the timeless "California Dreamin'" and stands as a peak moment in the West Coast vocal-group sound.
A string of hit records followed:
Dedicated To The One I Love
Look Through My Window
I Call Your Name
Dream A Little Dream Of Me
Go Where You Wanna Go
I Saw Her Again Last Night
Words Of Love
Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)
Dancing In The Street
Along with writing much of the Mamas and Papas' material, John Phillips also wrote a song that would be remembered as a sort of theme song of the flower power era in California. Scott McKenzie, an ex-Journeyman, scored a number 4 hit in the U.S. with "San Francisco" (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair). The Mamas and Papas also appeared at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which John Phillips helped to finance.
By 1968, the group was falling apart and decided to disband. John and Michelle were having marriage problems and divorced in 1970. John went on to record a solo LP and also co-produced the movie "Brewster McCloud". Michelle Phillips appeared in "The Last Movie" with actor Dennis Hopper, to whom she was later married for eight days.
Cass Elliot launched a successful solo career with "Dream A Little Dream Of Me". Her distinct voice had always emerged from the groups in which she sang. In 1969 she scored another hit single with "It's Getting Better" and 1970 yielded the hits "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "New World Coming." She also appeared in the film version of "Pufnstuf" and recorded an album with rock star Dave Mason.
The Mamas and Papas reunited briefly in 1971 to cut what they would later describe as 'a poor reunion album', "People Like Us", but disbanded again soon after.
Denny Doherty recorded two unsuccessful solo albums and Michelle Phillips resumed her acting career in the movie "Dillinger" and a movie bio of Rudolph Valentino.
Elliot had two prime time television specials of her own in 1969 and 1973, but most people remember her scores of television appearances throughout the early 1970's with Mike Douglas, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Tom Jones, Carol Burnett and others. She guest hosted The Tonight Show, had successful stints in Las Vegas and continued to record for RCA during these years. Cass had one daughter, Owen Vanessa in April 1967 but later divorced Jim Hendricks and married Baron Donald von Wiedenman in 1971.
In 1974, Cass travelled to England where she had a two week engagement at the London Palladium. After performing to sell-out audiences and basking in repeated ovations, Cass tragically succumbed to a heart attack on July 29, 1974, at the age of 33. She did not, as urban legend would have us believe, choke on a ham sandwich.
John Phillips had become idle by the mid 1970s, simply living off the royalties from his earlier work. He was arrested by U.S. narcotics agents on July 31st, 1980 and was sentenced to an eight year prison term, which was later reduced to 30 days. John then cleaned up his act and re-formed the Mamas and the Papas in 1982. The group included founding member Denny Doherty and two new "Mamas": John's daughter Mackenzie Phillips and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane, who'd sung with Spanky and Our Gang back in the sixties. By the mid nineties, Doherty was the sole member of the original group.
In 1998, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted The Mamas and The Papas. Cass Elliot's daughter Owen represented her mother and accepted her award.
On March 18, 2001, John Phillips, died of heart failure at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, at age 65, surrounded by family and friends. He had received a liver transplant several years before, after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Michelle Phillips told the TV show Entertainment Tonight that she and John had a chance to talk and ended their long time feud on his death bed. Denny Doherty was also among John's last visitors.
Just before his death, John recorded an album of new material. He had also completed a record he started over 25 years ago with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, entitled "Pay, Pack and Follow". He is survived by his wife Farnaz, daughters McKenzie, Chynna and Bijou, sons Jeffrey and Tamerlane, as well as step-daughters Atoosa and Sanaz.
On January 19th, 2007, Denny Doherty passed away at his home near Toronto, Ontario after suffering an aneurysm in his abdomen. He was 66. After he stopped touring in the late 90s, Doherty appeared as the main storyteller in The Needfire, a Canadian-celtic musical performed at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. He also appeared in TV movies such as Pit Pony and had a guest appearance in 2005 on the CBC-TV series This is Wonderland.
John Phillips was in the news again in September, 2009 when his daughter Mackenzie appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show for an hour-long interview in which she said her father injected her with cocaine was she was just eleven years old. She also claimed to have had a ten year incestuous relationship with John that ended when she became pregnant and did not know who the father was. She said that her father paid for her to have an abortion, "and I never let him touch me again." Genevieve Waite, John's wife at the time of the alleged abuse, denied the allegations, as did Michelle Phillips. Chynna Phillips, Mackenzie's half-sister and Michelle Phillips' daughter, said she was told of the abuse in 1997. Bijou Phillips, Mackenzie's other half-sister, said "I do not believe my sister. Our father is many things; this is not one of them." Jessica Woods, daughter of Denny Doherty, said that her father knew of the relationship. Now that John is no longer here to defend himself, the truth may never be known, but the accusation alone has left a nasty stain on John Phillips reputation.
In February, 2016, an updated version of "California Dreamin'" by a German DJ called Freischwimmer (real name: Sebastian Bernhardt) topped the Billboard Dance Chart. The original version had made it to #4 nearly fifty years earlier in March, 1966.