In the early ’60s, when John Phillips lived at New York’s Earl Hotel, Barry McGuire would come by and jam with him and Byrd Jim McGuinn. Cass Elliot knew him, too, and when McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” began jetting up the charts, she called him up and asked him if he needed backing vocalists. They went to see him in L.A. and played him songs like “California Dreamin’,” which Phillips had written two years earlier in New York in the dead of winter, waking up Michelle to help him finish it. McGuire wanted to record it with them backing him.
Mogul Lou Adler heard them and quickly decided to become their manager/producer. Originally they were going to release “Go Where You Wanna Go” as their first single. But as the group worked out their vocal counterpart for McGuire’s version of “California Dreaming,” Adler realized he had struck gold and told them that had to be their single. Apologetically, they asked McGuire for it back. He was bummed but understood. Producer Adler replaced McGuire’s vocal track with Denny Doherty’s on top of the Wrecking Crew’s instrumentation and added a flute. Now they needed a name, and the foursome picked theirs after they heard that the Hell’s Angels called their ladies Mamas.
The single was the first of Phillips’ west coast anthems and, after its release in December, inspire countless to pack up and follow their freedom. But just as “California Dreamin’” was becoming a reality, Michelle and Doherty almost blew the whole thing apart. During Cass’ birthday celebration, Phillips and Cass passed out. Wordlessly Doherty led Michelle into the apartment next door, where they made love. The Monday after, they signed the deal with Adler’s company Dunhill. That Wednesday, Phillips caught his band mate and wife in flagrante delicto.[i]
Somehow, the band kept going. Phillips and Michelle moved to a different part of town. But Doherty said, “Michelle had found a little independence and could go out and have a fling with whoever she wished at that point, because her husband had just condoned the fact that she was having a dalliance with me, for reasons known only to himself. So she started seeing other people, and now she’s got two guys, me and John, going, [heartbreaking moan] ‘Ahh, ohh …’ She’s seeing other people, and he can’t really get into it with her. I can’t really get into it with her because of the group thing, and they’re husband and wife. Meanwhile, I’m standing back, and Cass is going, ‘You son of a bitch …’ It was a rather touchy time …”[ii]
Another day, Phillips tried to sneak up on Michelle and Doherty and catch them, but Michelle spied him approaching and ran off. When she snuck back she heard Phillips saying, “I understand, Denny. I understand what a little temptress she is.” Michelle recalled, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Now it’s all my fault?’ They were talking very manfully, like buddies.”[iii]
Cass, meanwhile, had long carried an unrequited torch for Doherty and was furious with Michelle, though she eventually forgave her. Cass proposed to Denny, but he declined. Doherty wrote the melody to “I Saw Her Again,” then Phillips penned lyrics about Doherty and Michelle’s infidelity, Doherty said, “Because [John] wanted me to sing it onstage every night. ‘Here you are — sing about it!’”[iv] Even Fleetwood Mac twelve years later would have trouble matching the Mamas and the Papas’ twisted inter-band dynamics. And Phillips hadn’t even started her affair with Byrd co-founder Gene Clark yet. By that time, “California Dreamin’” would be tied with “The Ballad of the Green Berets” for top-selling song of 1966.
[iv] Unterberger, 226.