March 18, 2001 – John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) was born on August 30th 1935 in Parris Island, South Carolina. His father, Claude Andrew Phillips, was a retired United States Marine Corps officer who won an Oklahoma bar from another Marine in a poker game on the way home from France after World War I. His mother, Edna Gertrude (née Gaines), who had English and Cherokee ancestry, met his father in Oklahoma. According to his autobiography, Papa John, Phillips’ father was a heavy drinker who suffered from poor health.
Phillips grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, where he was inspired by Marlon Brando to be “street tough.” From 1942 to 1946, he attended Linton Hall Military School in Bristow, Virginia; according to his autobiography, he “hated the place,” citing “inspections,” and “beatings,” and recalls that “nuns used to watch us take showers.” He formed a group of teenage boys, who also sang doo-wop songs. He played basketball at George Washington High School, now George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia, where he graduated in 1953, and gained an appointment to the Naval Academy. However, he resigned during his first (plebe) year. Phillips then attended Hampden–Sydney College, a liberal arts college for men in Hampden Sydney, Virginia, but dropped out in 1959.
Phillips longed to have success in the music industry and traveled to New York to find a record contract in the early 1960s. His first band, The Journeymen, was a folk trio, with Scott McKenzie and Dick Weissman. They were fairly successful, putting out three albums and several appearances on the 1960s TV show, Hootenanny. All three albums, as well as a compilation known as Best of the Journeymen, have since been reissued on CD. He developed his craft in Greenwich Village, during the American folk music revival, and met future The Mamas & the Papas group vocalists Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot there around that time. Lyrics of the group’s song “Creeque Alley”, referring to their vacation stay in Charlotte Amalie’s Creque Alley on St.Thomas and living on Americsan Express Cards, just before the breakthrough of the Mamas and Papas.
Phillips was the primary songwriter and musical arranger of The Mamas & the Papas. In a 1968 interview, Phillips described some of his arrangements as “well arranged two-part harmony moving in opposite directions”. After being signed to Dunhill, they had several Billboard Top Ten hits, including “California Dreamin'”, “Monday, Monday”, “I Saw Her Again”, “Creeque Alley”, and “12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)”. John Phillips also wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)“, in 1967 for former Journeyman band mate, Scott McKenzie. “San Francisco” is widely regarded as emblematic of 1960s American counterculture music. Phillips also wrote the oft-covered “Me and My Uncle”, which was a favorite song cover frequently performed by The Grateful Dead.
Phillips also helped promote the Monterey International Pop Music Festival held June 16 to 18, 1967 in Monterey, California. The festival was planned in just seven weeks and was developed as a way to validate rock music as an art form in the way jazz and folk were regarded. It was the first major pop-rock music event in history.
John and Michelle Phillips became Hollywood celebrities, living in the Hollywood Hills and socializing with stars such as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Roman Polanski. The Mamas & the Papas broke up in 1968 largely because Cass Elliot wanted to go solo and because of some personal problems among Phillips, his wife Michelle, and Denny Doherty, including his wife’s affair with Doherty.
As Michelle Phillips later recounted, “Cass confronted me and said ‘I don’t get it. You could have any man you want. Why would you take mine?'” Michelle had been fired briefly in 1966, for having had affairs with both Gene Clark and Doherty, and was replaced for a period of two months by Jill Gibson, their producer Lou Adler’s girlfriend. Although Michelle Phillips was forgiven and asked to return to the group, the personal problems would continue until the group split. Cass Elliot went on to have a successful solo career until her death from heart failure in 1974 in London.
Phillips released his first solo album ‘John, the Wolf King of L.A‘ in 1970, which included the minor hit “Mississippi”. Phillips began to withdraw from the limelight as his use of narcotics increased.
Phillips produced his third wife, Geneviève Waïte’s, album, Romance Is on the Rise and wrote music for films. Between 1969 and 1974, Phillips and Waïte worked on a script and composed over 30 songs for a space-themed musical called Man on the Moon, which was eventually produced by Andy Warhol but played for just two days in New York after receiving disastrous opening night reviews.
Phillips moved to London in 1973; Mick Jagger encouraged him to record another solo album. It was to be released on Rolling Stones Records and funded by RSR distributor Atlantic Records. Jagger and Keith Richards would produce and play on the album, as well as former Stone Mick Taylor and future Stone Ronnie Wood. The project was derailed by Phillips’ increasing use of cocaine and heroin, which he injected, by his own admission, “almost every fifteen minutes for two years”. In 2001, the tracks of the Half Stoned or The Lost Album album were released as Pay Pack & Follow a few months after Phillips’ death. In 1975 Phillips, still living in London, was commissioned to create the soundtrack to the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie. Phillips asked Mick Taylor to help out; the film was released in 1976.
In 1981, Phillips was convicted of drug trafficking; subsequently, he and his television star daughter Mackenzie Phillips made the rounds in the media in an anti-drug campaign, helping to reduce his prison time to only a month in jail, of which he spent three weeks (one week off for good behavior) at Allenwood Prison Camp, Allenwood Pa. Upon his release, he re-formed The Mamas & the Papas with Mackenzie Phillips, Spanky McFarlane (of the group Spanky and Our Gang) and Denny Doherty. Throughout the rest of his life, Phillips toured with various incarnations of this group.
In 1986, his best-selling autobiography, Papa John, was published. With Terry Melcher, Mike Love and his former Journeyman colleague Scott McKenzie, he co-wrote the number 1 single for the Beach Boys, “Kokomo,” from the film Cocktail, which was also nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Song Written specifically for a Motion Picture or Television category (it lost to Phil Collins’s “Two Hearts,” from the film Buster).
His years of drug addiction resulted in health problems that required a liver transplant in 1992. Several months later, however, photographs of him drinking alcohol in a bar in Palm Springs, California were published in the National Enquirer newspaper. Questioned on the Howard Stern radio show, he said “I was just trying to ‘break in’ the new liver”.
Philliups died of heart failure on March 18, 2001, age 65, just days after completing sessions for a new album “Phillips 66”, which was released posthumously in August 2001.
The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame on January 12, 1998, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.