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The Mamas and the Papas Were Torn Apart by Illicit Affairs

The Mamas & the Papas were a seminal and talented rock and pop group from the 1960’s, who paved the way for many groups after them. Their locked in harmonies and catchy hooks captured a sound that has come to define the west coast, and is still popular today. And if you turn on any movie set in the 1960’s, odds are great that you’re going to hear one of their many hits like “Monday Monday” and “California Dreaming” in the soundtrack. But, like so many successful bands, they weren’t without their share of tumult behind the scenes. For the Mamas & the Papas, it was due to romances and affairs, as well as unrequited love within the band. So join us, as Facts Verse presents: The Mamas and The Papas Were Torn Apart by Illicit Affairs.

Michelle and John Phillips

Though the Mamas & The Papas skyrocketed to stardom with their unique and lush pop sound, the inner workings of the band eventually tore them apart. But their beefs weren’t musical in nature. The band performed with harmonies that audiences had never heard before, and they were in fact one of the first successful groups to combine male and female vocal performances. And yet, despite how locked in they were, musically, they were completely out of sorts when it came to the interpersonal workings of the band. Michelle Phillips, one of the founding members, characterized the bands journey from 1965 to 1968 as “two-and-a-half years of total melodrama.”

And she played a huge role in that melodrama. She first met fellow bandmate John Phillips when she was a teenager, primarily earning money as a model. John Phillips was actually married at the time. But the two fell in love, and John decided to leave his wife and marry Michelle. He had a trio at the time called The New Journeymen, and he also invited her to join the band. All seemed well between the two, until the Mamas & the Papas started. While the band was in the midst of their extreme and sudden success, Michelle realized that she had feelings for another bandmate, Denny Doherty.

To her delight, Denny shared the same feelings. Michelle felt somewhat unencumbered by the bonds and rules of marriage, and considered her relationship with John to be an open one. Though it appears she wasn’t eager to let John know about her feelings for Doherty. She later claimed that even in rehearsals, when the group would be sitting around a table discussing with harmonies each of them was going to sing, she and Doherty would be playing footsie underneath. Michelle claimed that Cass Elliot and John were both totally unaware of what was going on. Eventually, however, the affair was unearthed, and it wreaked havoc on the morale and cohesion of the band.

Phillips’ reaction

John Phillips didn’t exactly have a leg to stand on when it came to being angry about Michelle’s affair with Doherty. This is because he was allegedly having a lot of dalliances on the side as well. And yet, he was furious when he found out that Michelle and Doherty were romantically involved. And while he resented Michelle for it, he seemed to not be quite as upset at the other half of the affair, Denny Doherty. Or at least, he was able to put his feelings aside and co-write a song with Doherty called “I Saw Her Again” which was not only about the affair, but became a hit. So at the very least, Phillips was able to channel his anger into a spark of creativity that helped the band.

But things got much worse when he found out about Michelle’s relationship with Gene Clark, who was a member of another important band, The Byrds. That reportedly sent John into a tizzy, and he promptly kicked Michelle out of the band. This happened while the group was right in the middle of recording “The Mamas & The Papas”, their second album. While switching personnel in the middle of an album recording isn’t often a good idea, John was undeterred. He replaced Michelle with another singer. But the move ultimately backfired. Michelle used all of her clout with the record label, the other bandmates, and even with fans, to convince John to reverse his decision. And those moves worked – she was admitted back into the band to finish the album. Though it is interesting to note that there isn’t a clear public record of which tracks on the final record were sung by Michelle and which were sung by the woman who briefly replaced her.

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Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty

There was another love story within the group that was of a different style, yet ultimately created a wedge in the band. And that was the unrequited love that Cass Elliot had for Denny Doherty. During the band’s first album and the tour that followed, Cass developed strong feelings for Doherty. And sadly, Doherty wasn’t interested in her romantically. This left Cass with feelings of rejection and sadness. This feelings were further intensified after it came out that Doherty was having an affair with Michelle. Cass took this very personally. And even though she and Doherty weren’t in a relationship, and it was very unlikely they ever would be, Cass still felt as if her friend and bandmate had betrayed her. Apparently she confronted Michelle, pointing that the former model and current rock star could basically have any man she wanted. Cass said, “I don’t get it. You could have any man you want. Why would you take mine?”

Contentious recording sessions and the band’s breakup

Sadly, the unrequited love between Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, as well as the affair between Denny and Michelle Phillips were too much for the band to take. This caused the recordings of their third and fourth albums to be troubled from the get go. The band tried to get past their difference in the name of getting great music recorded, and one of the big methods they used was drinking and drug use. They reportedly would wake up every morning during the recording sessions and get intensely drunk. Then they’d bring more booze and pot into the studio and partake all day as they created their albums. Michelle Phillips later pointed out that while the band did experiment heavily with LSD, they never used it in the studio.

Things did get slightly better for John and Michelle, at least for a brief period. They got back together, and one of the first things they did was help to organize the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. The festival was a huge success, and not only featured their band, but also acts like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. However, it was reportedly clear, even at that performance, that the band was starting to unravel. John and Michelle did manage to stay together long enough to have a child in those years, Chyna, they ended up divorcing in 1970. But the tension in the band, particularly between them made is so that recording their third album (Deliver) and their fourth album (The Papas & the Mamas) was exceedingly difficult.

Cass Elliot also confessed to a desire to branch out from the group around this time. She had been getting offers for television, film, and was interested in a solo music career as well. As soon as the band disassembled, she started her solo career, recording a hit single, Dream a Little Dream of Me” in her first year. But before that, she slogged it out as best she could with the band, until they fully broke up in 1969.

The End of the Band, and Their Deaths

Though the group broke up in 69, it wasn’t technically the end of their run. They had a brief attempt at getting back together in 1971. They recorded an album called People Like Us, but unfortunately, the spark and chestry in the group was far gone. The album ended up being a failure. After that, the band was fully done.

But even if they’d been trying to stay together, that would have likely ended by 1974, because that’s when Cass Elliot tragically died. Her career had been going quite well until that point, and she was making TV and film appearances, as well as selling records as a solo artist. Sadly she died of a heart attach, potentially caused by her extreme diet regime.

John Phillips died in 2001, though his later years were filled with drug and alcohol. This included a stint in rehab in 1980 and a liver transplant in 1992. After his death he was accused of rape and incest by his daughter Mackenzie. Doherty was a problem drinker for years, though did find way to curtail that habit before dying in 2007. And Michelle Doherty is the remaining member of the band who is still alive today.

Now it’s time to hear from you. Do you think the Mamas & The Papas would have lasted many more years if it hadn’t been for the romances and unrequited love within the band? What’s your favorite song from The Mamas & The Papas? Let us know in the comments section below. And before you go, be sure to give this video a like, and subscribe to Facts Verse if you haven’t already. Click the bell icon to stay updated on all our latest content. 

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