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‘Mama Cass’ Elliot Dead

Remembering the Mamas and Papa’s singer

pop singer, Mama Cass Elliot, 'Don't Call Me Mama Anymore'

American pop singer Mama Cass Elliot poses for her television special 'Don't Call Me Mama Anymore' in September of 1973.

CBS Photo Archive via Getty

She was the queen of L.A. pop society in the mid-60s. Her voice helped make the harmony that made the Mamas and the Papas; her house in Laurel Canyon was a gathering place for musician friends like David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Buddy Miles. Crosby, Stills and Nash, in fact, first joined their voices at Cass’; from there they decided to work together formally. Onstage, she was ”Mama Cass,” the comic presence. And, as her former manager, Bobby Roberts, said: ”She was overweight, but she carried it off like she was a beauty queen.”

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Cass Elliot, 32, died in the early morning of July 29th in the London flat of Harry Nilsson, where she was living with her friend and road manager, George Caldwell, during her stay in England. Death was ruled accidental at a coroner’s hearing the next day; the post-mortem showed that she died as a result of choking on a sandwich while in bed and from inhaling her own vomit. She had complained to friends recently of frequent vomiting, possibly the result of dieting. That evening, when her secretary, Dot MacLeoud, failed to reach Elliot by phone, she went to the flat and found the body. Several persons, according to manager Alan Carr, had been in her apartment the morning and afternoon of her death, but thought she was asleep.

Elliot is survived by a daughter, Owen, seven, from her first marriage to songwriter James Hendricks. She was also married for a short time to Donald von Wiedenman last year.

Cass had just completed a successful two-week engagement at the Palladium, Saturday, July 27th. To play the Palladium, comparable to Carnegie Hall in the U.S., ”was one of her lifetime ambitions,” said Bobby Roberts. As she left the hall, she saw the picture of Judy Garland in the gold frame inscribed with the dates Judy had played there. Cass said, ”I know what it must have meant to that lady to be a hit here, because I know what it means to me.” She had attended a cocktail party Sunday night at Mick Jagger’s home, but did not drink and departed early in the evening. Lou Adler, producer of the Mamas and the Papas, saw Cass’s Palladium opening. ”She was really up,” he said. ”She felt she was opening a new career; she’d finally got together an act she felt good doing–not prostituting herself, but middle-of-the-road people enjoyed it and she enjoyed doing it.”

She had also just been interviewed. ”I’m independent,” she told reporter William Otterburn-Hall. ”I value my freedom to live and love as I want more than anything else in the world.” But in London, six years after the breakup of the Mamas and the Papas, she was still fending off her golden-era name, ”Mama Cass.” ”I never created the Big Mama image,” she said. ”The public does it for you. But I’ve always been different. I’ve been fat since I was seven. Being fat sets you apart, but luckily I was bright with it; I had an IQ of 165. I got into the habit of being independent, and the habit became a design for living.” Her last album, released in 1973, was titled Don’t Call Me Mama Any More.

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Cass Elliot was born September 19th, 1941, in Alexandria, Virginia, the daughter of parents who were opera fans and sang around the house. Cass did not begin to sing until after college in Washington, D.C. ”At college [American University],” she said, ”I met Tim Rose, leader of the Big Three, and sang with them. Then in 1964 [in New York City] I was in the Mugwumps with Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian.” Doherty went on to join with John Phillips and Michelle Gilliam in a new group. Phillips, talking to reporter John Gibson shortly after the break-up of the Mamas and the Papas, told how Cass came to join the group: ”She and Denny were friends–well, she was madly in love with Denny. And she started following us around. Everywhere we went. It got to be a sadomasochistic game. Cass would get a job as a waitress in the nightclub ’cause we wouldn’t let her sing with us. She’d rehearse with us, and then we’d say, ‘OK, Cass, serve some fucking drinks, we’re going onstage.’ Finally, we let her join the group.”

In the same interview, however, Phillips related a story that more accurately reflected the group’s closeness. ”The first acid trip any of us ever took, we took together,” he said. ”That was the first night Cass and I met, in the East Village in late ’64 or early ’65. And there was this fantastic rapport among the four of us, so we just sort of knew. We started singing and singing, and singing, and it was obvious that it was just a matter of working it out.” Soon after the first hit, ”California Dreamin”’ in late ’65, Cass established herself as a major force in the group. She would also be the first to talk about a break-up, and to leave. Phillips: ”Cass’s idea of show business was really show business. We just wanted to fuck around, have a good time. Cass wanted to have gowns, hairdos, and that whole thing.”

After four albums, in mid-’68, the group gave up on a tour of England and broke up. By October 1968 Cass had finished her first solo album and went to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, the first flower-powered pop act, aside from Tiny Tim, to intrude. She was given a $40,000 a week salary and bombed out, suffering from nervousness and tonsillitis. Even her best friends–her former partners and others from the L.A. pop scene were at ringside–had to say that opening night was a disaster. Cass cancelled out and went home to Laurel Canyon.

She was more successful with television, becoming a regular on talk shows and Hollywood Squares, doing straight acting roles as well as variety shows and hosting several shows of her own. An attempt to join forces with Dave Mason in 1970 resulted in one album, little response, and a tour that fizzled. So did an attempted reunion of the Mamas and the Papas in 1971. But Cass did have several hits on her own, including ”Make Your Own Kind of Music,” ”California Earthquake” and ”New World Coming.”

In recent years she moved back into the nightclub circuit and returned to Las Vegas, this time to succeed at the Flamingo in March 1972 and at the Riviera in August 1973. From there she went on to headline at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and similarly posh clubs in Miami, Puerto Rico and, finally, last month, in London.

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