Mama Cass Elliot

Mama Cass Elliot Headshot

Singer

Birth Name: Ellen Naomi Cohen

Birth Date: September 19, 1941

Death Date: July 29, 1974

Birth Place: Baltimore, Maryland

Bands: The Mamas & the Papas

A much-loved figure in the rock world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the powerfully voiced, Rubenesque singer Cass Elliot, also known as "Mama Cass," was a member of the Mamas and Papas, whose sun-dappled harmonies turned songs like "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin'" into enduring hits. After the group dissipated in 1968 amidst personality conflicts, Elliot enjoyed modest success as a solo artist who combined pop sensibilities with elements of country, jazz and Tin Pan Alley.

Sweet, self-confident anthems like "Dream a Little Dream" and "Make Your Own Kind of Music" endeared her to the mainstream, where she became a popular guest on television. After re-inventing herself as a cabaret-style singer, Elliot died in her sleep in 1974, bringing a promising new career direction to an abrupt halt. Her abundant charms and exuberant personality preserved her legacy for subsequent generations, who held her up as an artist who lived her life on her own terms and celebrated it in her music.

Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, MD on Sept. 19, 1941, she was the daughter of Philip and Bess Cohen, who raised their daughter in Alexandria, VA, believing that she would follow a traditional path in life, starting with a college education leading to a mainstream career. However, Elliot discovered acting in high school, and after landing a role in a summer stock production of the musical "The Boy Friend," left school to pursue a career on the stage in New York.

There, she auditioned for and lost the lead role in the musical "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" to another aspiring singer, Barbra Streisand, before touring the country in a production of "The Music Man." In 1963, Elliot - whose stage name was derived from Broadway star Peggy Cass and a classmate named Elliot who had died - teamed with singer and banjo player Tim Rose and John Brown to form the folk vocal group, The Triumvirate. Later that same year, James Hendricks replaced Brown, and the group, now billed as The Big 3, released a handful of recordings while appearing on variety series like "Hootenanny" (ABC, 1963-64).

Elliot briefly married Hendricks to help him avoid the Vietnam War draft, and the marriage was annulled in 1968.

Rose left the group the following year to pursue his own solo career, and was replaced by Canadian performers Zal Yanofsky and Denny Doherty. This new group, called the Mugwumps, lasted just eight months before Yanofsky joined the Lovin' Spoonful and Doherty became one of the New Journeymen, which featured singer-songwriter John Phillips and his wife, Michelle. Elliot continued as a solo performer in the Washington, D.C. area before Doherty approached Phillips about bringing Elliot into the fold.

Phillips initially balked at the idea, which gave rise to an elaborate story about Elliot suffering a head injury that granted her a miraculous new vocal range. However, the truth was that Phillips considered Elliot too heavy to join the group, fearing that her presence would draw negative attention. But after hearing Elliot harmonize with the other members, he relented, and after joining the trio in the Virgin Islands in 1965, she became a full-fledged member. The New Journeymen soon changed their names to the Mamas and the Papas, and struck gold with the 1965 release of their second single, "California Dreamin'."

A combination of visually striking performers with precise harmonies and wistful lyrics helped to make the Mamas and the Papas one of the most popular and admired groups of the 1960s. Songs like the No. 1 hit "Monday, Monday," "I Saw Her Again," and "Dedicated to the One I Love" seemed to reflect the idyllic, Aquarian ideals of the growing counterculture, but behind the scenes, the group was awash in personal turmoil.

Elliot carried an unrequited torch for Doherty, who was engaged in an affair with Michelle Phillips, unbeknownst to John Phillips. Both Doherty and John Phillips were also heavy drug and alcohol users, which only exacerbated tensions. After giving birth to a daughter, Owen, by an unnamed father in 1967, Elliot quit the group after John Phillips made an unkind comment about her in front of Mick Jagger, but was contractually bound to complete two more records for their label, Dunhill Records. Ironically, it was Elliot's solo number, "Dream a Little Dream," that provided the group with its last hit.

A dismal performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which Phillips helped to organize and was captured on film in the documentary "Monterey Pop" (1968), helped to precipitate their breakup in 1968.

Less than a month after leaving the Mamas and the Papas, Elliot released her solo album, Dream a Little Dream, which saw her breaking free from the group's breezy pop rock and experimenting with touches of country, blues, jazz and psychedelia. Despite low-wattage promotion from Dunhill, the album was a modest success, and led to a high paying in Las Vegas.

However, her performances were poorly received, and after suffering a collapse on stage, she soon returned to the studio to record the single, "It's Getting Better" (1969), which reached No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its follow-up, the exuberant "Make Your Own Kind of Music," charted slightly lower, but earned critical praise. Its success prompted the label to reissue her second LP, Bubble Gum, Lemonade, and Something for Mama (1969) as Make Your Own Kind of Music that same year.

The success of the two singles pushed Elliot into the mainstream, where her brassy vocals and personality made her a popular guest on television variety and game shows. She was the star of her own TV special, "The Mama Cass Television Program" (ABC) in 1969, and appeared as Witch Hazel in "Pufnstuf" (1970), a theatrical version of the popular children's series "H.R. Pufnstuf" (NBC, 1969-1971) produced by her neighbor, Sid Krofft.

Elliot even served as guest host for "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), where she was also a frequent guest. Despite her success on the small screen, Elliot was still fighting to establish herself as a solo artist. She had fought with Dunhill to bill herself as Cass Elliot and not Mama Cass, but the label refused to allow the change and frequently pushed her to record material that sounded similar to her days in the group, rather than by songwriters she truly valued, like Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, and her sister, Leah Kunkel. After completing the greatest-hits album Mama's Big Ones in 1971, she teamed with former Traffic guitarist Dave Mason to release Dave Mason & Cass Elliot, a bluesy LP that saw Elliot singing in a grittier fashion than on her previous albums.

That same year, she recorded her vocal parts for a patchwork Mamas and Papas album, People Like Us (1971), which completed the group's contract with Dunhill. She also married journalist Baron Donald von Wiedenman that year, but the union was over within a few months.

In 1972, she signed with RCA to release Cass Elliot, a sophisticated collection of pop songs and standards with a strong jazz flavor. The album was not a hit, though it wielded a strong influence on albums by Bette Midler and Rod Stewart, among others, in subsequent years. Its follow-up, The Road is No Place for a Lady (1972), suffered a similar fate, but she gave her career a much-needed boost with a live album, Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (1973), which embraced a cabaret sound.

It was a rousing success, and led to a well-received return to Las Vegas and clubs across the country. She also began to explore acting, with guest appearances on various shows and in the made-for-TV comedy "Saga of Sonora" (NBC, 1973).

In July 1974, Elliot was appearing at the London Palladium for a two-week stint of sold-out shows. After completing her final performance on July 28, she phoned Michelle Phillips to share her joy in receiving standing ovations at the end of every concert. Elliot then went to bed, and suffered heart failure in her sleep, resulting in her death at the age of 32.

Though unkind rumors spread that she had choked to death on a ham sandwich, the actual cause was myocardial degeneration, which indicated that her fainting spell in Las Vegas, along with several others in ensuing years, was the result of an unchecked heart condition. After her body was returned to the United States, Elliot was entombed at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Her sister, Leah Kunkel, received custody of her daughter; both women enjoyed their own music careers, with Leah scoring a Top 100 hit in 1980 with "Straight from the Heart (Into Your Life)" as part of the Coyote Sisters and Owen Elliot cultivating a solo career.

In 1998, Elliot was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the surviving members of the Mamas and Papas. Unlike John Phillips, whose work was undermined by decades of addiction, Elliot's legacy was celebrated in the years after her death. Her vocals were widely praised by the likes of k.d. lang and Beth Ditto of the Gossip, while her songs were featured in numerous films and on television programs, most notably in the second and third seasons of "Lost" (ABC, 2005-2010), where they offered a sort of commentary on and theme for the character Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick).