“A gathering of friends in memory of John Phillips” is how Lou Adler, the man who signed and produced the Mamas and the Papas, called the event held Tuesday night at the Roxy in Los Angeles. “Papa” John Phillips died of heart failure just over a week prior, and on this evening the surviving Mamas and Papas as well as friends and family convened on the Sunset Strip to pay tribute. There was an outpouring of affection for the late singer and songwriter, and the event was truly a labor of love, as admission was free and all the musicians donated their time.
The line of fans stretched down Sunset prior to showtime. It was mostly an older crowd, forties and beyond, not rock & roll kids, but mamas and papas themselves, and more than a few grandmas and grandpas. Paparazzi and fans clutching albums awaiting autographs gathered by the side entrance, descending on various members of Phillips’ family and other musicians and celebrities, including Tim Curry, Warren Beatty, Ed Begley Jr., members of the Phillips family and Sean Lennon, Bijou Phillips’ boyfriend.
Inside, a dozen-plus acoustic guitars filled the stage, while pair of large color photos of the late musician hung at either end. As the lights dimmed, a video documenting Phillips’ life and the history of the Mamas and the Papas played. Clips from The Ed Sullivan Show and the Monterey Pop Festival showed the band in its prime, and the SRO crowd applauded each performance.
In a clip at the end of the video, “Mama” Cass Elliot introduced John Phillips as “a fine man, a helluva musician and a great American!” Following the video, Lou Adler walked out on stage to begin the live music portion of the evening. “Thank you all for coming to pay tribute to John Phillips, the tallest rock star ever,” he said, giving the stage over to a succession of musicians and friends whose lives and music had intersected with Phillips’. The mood was anything but somber, though, as many recounted memories of the late musician.
Surviving Papa Denny Doherty was up first, with John Stewart (Kingston Trio) and Scott McKenzie, singing Stewart’s “Chilly Winds,” a song written by Stewart and John Phillips. Like most of the music on this evening, the vocals were heartfelt but ragged.
Shayne Fontayne, who played guitar in John Phillips’ band, and was briefly married to Mackenzie Phillips (and is the father of John’s grandson Shayne Phillips), told the audience he had recently visited the ailing musician in the hospital. Phillips asked if he was available to record with him next week, Fontayne said, and he promised to be there, though he knew Phillips would not make it. He returned to the hospital after Phillips’ death and sat alone with him, singing to him.
Fontayne then backed Shayne, who sang “Miss You” for his late grandfather. Later, Phillips’ son Tamerlaine, tall and skinny like his father, a yogic figure swathed in white robes, played guitar and sang an original tune.
“Rainbow,” a song from Phillips’ post-Mamas and the Papas period, was performed by Don Aitey, backed by a full band. “We love you, John,” Aitey shouted before leaving the stage, echoing the sentiments of all the assembled musicians.
Phillips’ daughters Bijou and Mackenzie, joined by guitarist Fontayne, delivered an enthusiastic version of “Got a Feelin’,” with Lennon on drums. Mackenzie then gave a solo performance of “Fairytale Girl,” an unrecorded song by her father, in a pleasantly throaty voice. One of the large photos of John fell from its perch during the tune; unfazed, Mackenzie picked it up and held it aloft as she sang.
Michelle Phillips, who had spent the early portion of the concert videotaping it from the wings, finally appeared onstage to share vocals with Barry McGuire, John Stewart and Denny Doherty on “Eve of Destruction.” McGuire updated the lyrics of his 1966 hit with a reference to the Columbine massacre and changed the phrase “three days in space” to “six months.”
John Phillips had co-written “Kokomo” for the Beach Boys, and Mike Love, in Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, was joined by Bruce Johnson and Terry Melcher in an off-key rendition of the Number One hit.
During Scott McKenzie’s performance of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” Bijou, dancing like a cheerleader on ecstasy, found a flower and placed it in Michelle Phillips’ hair. Michelle next returned to the stage to sing some lead vocals on “Creeque Alley”, and stayed to share the singing on a lively take on “Monday, Monday.”
If Michelle Phillips and the others weren’t capable of the dulcet tones and seamless harmonies they produced decades ago — and they weren’t — they were at least no less enthusiastic and sincere in their efforts on this evening.
All the musicians returned to the stage for a rousing, full-throttled finale of “California Dreamin’.” There were smiles all around the room, from the stage to the fans up front to the celebrities in their reserved seating, reflecting nostalgia both for the music and for a time when anything seemed possible.