Dream a little dream … of Mama Cass

by Mollie Tie

Next stop on our epic journey of re-visiting some of popular music’s underrated women, we must go back to the 1941 when Ellen Naomi Cohen was born in Maryland, USA. From birth to her untimely death in 1974, Cohen’s life had it’s harrowing difficulties along with some ground-breaking triumphs. The product of this amazing, and ultimately too short life was a body of work that includes soul, heart and sass.

Cohen is better known to the music world as Mama Cass- one quarter of the musically brilliant yet personally troubled Mamas and the Papas, as well as a successful and critically acclaimed solo artist. She was one of the figureheads of a body positivity movement before anyone even knew what that was, and was the life and soul of the trendy music scene of the 60s- partying hard and singing softly.

Cass started her pursuit of an entertainment career in New York City, trying out for musicals whilst working in cloak rooms and scraping by. She moved to Washington D.C to go to University and her arrival coincided with an American Folk renaissance which led to her joining her first band- The Big 3. The Big 3 only lasted for a couple of years (62-64) and Cass’s next venture- The Mugwumps- lasted a matter of months.

In 1965, Cass finally joined the group that would make her a worldwide star- The Mamas and the Papas. The group enjoyed worldwide success with hits such as California Dreamin’; Monday, Monday and Dedicated to the One I Love and carved out a niche in popular folk music that had mainstream appeal. Their harmonies were sophisticated, and Cass was certainly the most well-known figurehead of the group with many lead vocal roles.

The Mamas and The Papas released their final album in 1971 and Cass went on to enjoy acclaim as a solo artist as well as well-loved media personality. She was a regular on variety shows and talk shows and was booked for a 3-week residency at Las Vegas Caesars Palace. She was well regarded as having a vivacious disposition and a great sense of humour.

However, behind her sunny persona and musical success Cass experienced several turbulent events following her joining the Mamas and Papas. It is generally understood that she was in love with her band mate Denny Doherty and had even proposed marriage to him. Alas, Doherty was ensconced in an affair with Michelle Phillips (another member of the band) and a complicated love triangle ensued.  She also had her struggles with substance misuse, a situation not helped by her intense recording and performing schedules.

Despite the rollercoaster ride that was Cass’s life; her talent was always on strong ground. Vocal academics highlighted her immense vocal range and enviable control and her rendition of the 1931 song Dream a Little Dream of Me is one of the most popular versions of the classic song which has also been recorded by  Louis Armstrong; Nat King Cole; Doris Day and Michael Bublé to name a few.

Mama Cass experienced a lot of comment and speculation regarding her weight. Since her death, her daughter has spoken in interviews about the impact of fat-shaming in the press had on her mother and how this spurred her on to not only achieve her own dreams but encourage other women as well. Her Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips remembers that Cass was always encouraging her to push herself vocally and not to let men in the music industry push her around.

She decided at 25 that she wanted to raise a child and as she was unmarried at the time, it was a bold choice to make even in the swinging 60s. She kept her pregnancy secret and by all accounts was a dedicated and loving mother to her daughter, even dedicating her song Lady Love to her:

“I have my little someone to hold onto …  a little girl to set me free. … She came along just in time / in time to ease my worried mind / and now I’ve got a little someone to hold on to.”

Tragically, Mama Cass passed away from heart failure in a London hotel room, age just 32. It was a life and musical career cut heartbreakingly short.

Her legacy lives on- not just in terms of her solo career and the example this set to subsequent female vocalists; but also the body of work the Mamas and The Papas leave behind. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009. Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips, as “the Mamas”, were ranked No. 21 on the VH1 network’s list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock- but Mama Cass will always be in my top 10. Dream a little dream…… of Mama CassHer legacy lives on- not just in terms of her solo career and the example this set to subsequent female vocalists; but also the body of work the Mamas and The Papas leave behind. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009. Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips, as “the Mamas”, were ranked No. 21 on the VH1 network’s list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock- but Mama Cass will always be in my top 10.

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