"Mama" Cass Elliot
September 19, 1941-July 29, 1974
Singer Cass Elliot, one fourth of the folk rock group the Mamas and the Papas, died on July 29, 1974- 40 years ago today- at the age of 32. Elliot was well known for her high range singing voice, which allowed her to embark on a short but successful solo career.
Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland. Referred to her friends as Cass, she attended George Washington High School where she became known for acting and performing in most of the school’s plays and musicals. It wasn’t until she began attending American University when she pursued a career in singer. Sometime in the early 1960’s, she would meet musician Tim Rose. She, Rose and musician James Hendricks would later form the folk group the Big 3. After only a few years together, the Big 3 fell apart when Rose left. Elliot and Hendricks, who were married in 1963, formed a new group called the Mugwumps with Zal Yanovasky (future member of the Lovin’ Spoonful) and Denny Doherty. After only one album together, the Mugwumps split in 1964. Along with the group’s split, Elliot and Hendricks divorced.
Even though the Mugwumps fell apart quickly, Denny Doherty kept in touch with Elliot as they had become close friends. Doherty soon joined a folk group named the New Journeymen, with guitarist John Phillips and his wife Michelle. While in the Virgin Islands, the group met up with Elliot. Doherty tried many times to convince Phillips that Elliot should join the group, but Phillips was reluctant as he didn’t think Elliot could hit the high notes the group needed. Legend has it that soon after this, Elliot was struck in the head with a lead pipe that fell from the ceiling of the bar she was working at, as there was construction work being done nearby. Soon after the incident, Elliot was able to hit the high notes Phillips wanted. With that, Elliot was in the newly named group the Mamas and the Papas in 1965.
Dunhill Records signed the Mamas and the Papas in 1965. From 1965 to 1968, the group would release four studio albums. Hit singles came from songs such as “California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” “I Saw Her Again,” “Creeque Alley,” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.” The group split in 1968, aside from reuniting briefly to record a reunion album in 1971. Elliot gained a head start to her solo career with “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” a song that was from the Mamas and the Papas 1968 album The Papas and the Mamas but the record label decided to release it as a Mama Cass single. In her solo career, Elliot made five studio albums and dozens of television appearances- easily making her the most successful member of the Mamas and the Papas after their split.
On the evening of July 28, 1974, Cass Elliot was in a flat that was on loan from singer Harry Nilsson- London, No. 12 at 9 Curzon Place, Shepherd Market, Mayfair. For the last two weeks, she had performed a series of sold-out concerts at the London Palladium. She decided to call former band mate Michelle Phillips, overjoyed that she received standing ovations every night. After this, she retired for the night. On the evening of July 29, 1974, Cass Elliot died in her sleep. The official cause of death was said to be a heart attack, although urban legend says that Elliot died after choking to death on a ham sandwich. This urban legend is said to have started after early reports of the discovery of Elliot’s body had been made. Police did indeed find a half-eaten ham sandwich on a plate. The urban legend was deemed false as the autopsy later proved that there was no food found in her windpipe. Further research would show that Elliot had lost 80 pounds in eight months, as she was on her own “one meal a week” diet. At the time of her death, Elliot was survived by her parents, sister and daughter Owen Vanessa (the identity of father had never been revealed to the public, although Michelle Phillips has said she helped Owen find her biological father years later). Four years after Elliot's death, Keith Moon, drummer for the Who, died in the same flat.
Now four decades after her death, the music of Cass Elliot is still celebrated today- whether it be her music with the Mamas and the Papas or the music she made during her solo career. It’s hard to imagine what Elliot would be doing today if she were still alive. Would the Mamas and the Papas have ever reunited with the original line-up? It’s hard to say. Sadly in 2001, John Phillips lost his battle with cancer. Nearly six years later, Denny Doherty passed away. This leaves Michelle Phillips the sole-surviving member of the group. While the Mamas and the Papas might not be around, they left behind an impressive collection of music. I think it’s safe to say that no one will ever forget Mama Cass.
Rest in peace, Cass...