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An architect of the California sound

Mamas and Papas' John Phillips: An appreciation

John Phillips
Through the music of the Mamas and the Papas, John Phillips helped make California sound so enticing that many people moved there on the strength of his song "California Dreamin'," said his ex-wife Michelle Phillips  

March 19, 2001
Web posted at: 4:49 p.m. EST (2149 GMT)

In this story:

Twists and turns

Underbelly of the beast

Legacy of a band

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(CNN) -- In rock 'n' roll history, the Beach Boys may have invented the California dream, the golden myth of beautiful people, limitless highways and sunny days that never end.

But the Mamas and the Papas made it stick.

"California Dreamin'"
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"Creeque Alley"
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"Midnight Voyage"
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And John Phillips was the architect of their sound, a glorious swirling of vocal harmonies over acoustic guitars and inventive arrangements, that beckoned many from the "dark and dirty" East to seek out paradise on their own.

Phillips died Sunday morning of heart failure at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. He was 65.

Phillips' daughter, Mackenzie Phillips, was with her father when he died.

"Our father passed away this morning," she said in a statement. "He went peacefully. ... We're all mourning the loss of our dad. He was a genius and a good man and he will be missed."

Twists and turns

If Phillips celebrated the California Dream, it's because he experienced it first-hand. Being a little older than his contemporaries, he also knew that the dream didn't always measure up to real life.

The Mamas and the Papas came out of the New York folk scene, a musical incubator that produced Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful and Barry McGuire of "Eve of Destruction" fame. Upon arriving in New York from San Francisco, California, Phillips and wife Michelle met up with Denny Doherty, a veteran of the Mugwumps, a folk group that also featured a singer named Cass Elliot.

The Mamas and the Papas
The sunny harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas -- Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips, and John Phillips -- masked romantic pain and confusion within the band  

After some twists and turns, the four moved to Los Angeles and formed their own group, the Mamas and Papas. Signed to producer Lou Adler's Dunhill label, they recorded their first album, "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears," in 1966. It featured their signature song, "California Dreamin'."

Even today, any person locked in the deep freeze of a northern winter can relate to the song's lyrics. Following the climbing, ominous tones of an acoustic guitar, the song begins:

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I went for a walk
On a winter's day ...

It's no surprise that, as Michelle Phillips once said, "I can't tell you how many people have told me over the years that the reason they were in California was because they heard the song 'California Dreamin'.' It changed their lives."

Underbelly of the beast

Still, for the Mamas and the Papas, California was not all sunny days and perfect harmony. The fault lines had emerged even before the group officially formed, when a trip to the Virgin Islands produced an affair between Michelle Phillips and Doherty. Doherty, in turn, was the object of an unrequited crush from Cass Elliot.

Just as another prototypical L.A. band, Fleetwood Mac, would a decade later use music to confront its inner turmoil, the Mamas and Papas addressed the group's pain and confusion in song. Phillips, the band's primary songwriter and at least six years older than the others, did not shy from the task. In such songs as "Got a Feelin'," "I Saw Her Again Last Night," and "Trip, Stumble and Fall," he cast a cold eye on the band's romantic entanglements, even as his lyrics were often belied by those sunny harmonies and Adler's slick production.

He worked the group hard, too.

"He could prod you gently or kick you in the ass," recalled Michelle Phillips in the liner notes to MCA's two-disc best-of compilation, "The History of the Mamas and the Papas." "He'd say, 'You've got to hit that note, and I mean it -- hit it on the next take."

The group weathered several storms. John fired Michelle in 1966 for three months; Elliot, never completely comfortable in the group, often threatened to leave; and drugs and parties took their toll on everyone. Meanwhile, Phillips had become a prime mover in the L.A. music scene and helped organize the 1967 Monterey Pop music festival, ushering in a new generation of California bands.

In 1968, the group called it quits.

Legacy of a band

The band had a checkered post-breakup history. Mama Cass had several hit singles, but none was of the quality of the band's work. (She died of a heart attack in 1974.) Michelle Phillips married and divorced Dennis Hopper within a week in the early 1970s. Doherty faded from the scene. John Phillips, despite a critically well-received solo album (1970's "John, The Wolf King of L.A.") declined into a life of drug and alcohol abuse, which led to a liver transplant in 1992.

Legacy of a band

The group reunited in 1971 for "People Like Us," a contractually obligated album, but it wasn't the same. "By that time, everyone was so nuts, from LSD, lifestyle and everything else," John Phillips recalled in the "History" liner notes. "It was horrible -- totally opposite from the way we had always worked so closely in the past."

Yet the group's music never faded, even if its members did. Its echoes can be heard in groups as diverse as Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Bangles and the B-52s. Phillips was capable of reworking R&B classics ("Dedicated to the One I Love," "Dancing in the Street") and even Beatles songs ("I Call Your Name") into something that sounded, well, like the Mamas and the Papas. And nobody sounded like the Mamas and the Papas -- at once baroque and folk, delicate and witty, sunny and melancholy.

At the time of his death, Phillips had just completed work on a new album, tentatively titled "Slow Starter." Another album, "Pay, Pack and Follow," which he began 25 years ago with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, is set for release in May.

Still, it's for the Mamas and the Papas that he'll be remembered.

In the 1980s he led a reformed group, with daughter Mackenzie subbing for Michelle and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane (of Spanky and Our Gang) singing Mama Cass' parts.

"It's just amazing," he said in the "History" liner notes of the group's concerts. "People all over the world know every word -- even young kids. We just stop singing and put the microphones out there, and they keep right on going."

Indeed, they do.

Creeque Alley
California Dreamin' with the Mamas and the Papas
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The Mamas and the Papas

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