July 29, 1974 – Mama Cass aka Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19th 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in the Washington D.C. environs and in her senior year of high school, she performed in a summer stock production of “The Boyfriend” at the Owings Mills Playhouse where she played the French nurse who sings “It’s Nicer, Much Nicer in Nice.” After this experience, even though her family anticipated her to seek a college education in pursuit of a career, Cass forged ahead in the world of performance.
“Elliot adopted the name “Cass” in high school, possibly borrowing it from actress Peggy Cass, as Denny Doherty tells it. She assumed the surname Elliot some time later, in memory of a friend who had died. Elliot attended George Washington High School, along with Jim Morrison of The Doors.
While still attending George Washington High School, Elliot became interested in acting and was cast in a school production of the play The Boy Friend. She left high school shortly before graduation and moved to New York City to further her acting career (as recounted in the lyrics to “Creeque Alley, a nightclub in Charlotte Amalie’s Virgin Islands waterfront alley“).
She made a splash in New York and began an acting career, competing with Barbra Streisand for the Miss Marmelstein part in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” in 1962. She toured in a production of Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.” Elliot also produced a play at Cafe La Mama in New York.
But by early 1963 she had met up with Tim Rose and John Brown and formed a folk trio initially dubbed The Triumvirate, yet later known as The Big 3 when Brown was replaced by James Hendricks. The Big 3 were a progressive and innovative folk trio who recorded two albums and made appearances on The Tonight Show, Hootenanny and the Danny Kaye Show.
Tim Rose left The Big 3 in 1964, and Elliot and Hendricks teamed with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty to form The Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Cass performed as a solo act for a while. In the meantime, Yanovsky and John Sebastian co-founded The Lovin’ Spoonful, while Doherty joined The New Journeymen, a group that also included John Phillips and his wife Michelle. Soon they left for the Virgin Islands for a contract vacation at Creeque Alley, where Cass subsequently joined them and the four began to sing together in mid-1965. Thus the superstar group The Mamas and The Papas was born.
Between 1965-1968 the Mamas and Papas recorded a series of top ten hits including “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreamin’,” “I Saw Her Again,” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.”In 1965, Doherty persuaded Phillips that Elliot should join the group, which she did while she and the group members were vacationing in the Virgin Islands.
A popular legend about Elliot is that her vocal range was improved by three notes after she was hit on the head by some copper tubing while walking through a construction site behind the bar where The New Journeymen were playing in the Virgin Islands.
Elliot confirmed the story in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, saying: “It’s true, I did get hit on the head by a pipe that fell down and my range was increased by three notes. They were tearing this club apart in the islands, revamping it, putting in a dance floor. Workmen dropped a thin metal plumbing pipe and it hit me on the head and knocked me to the ground. I had a concussion and went to the hospital. I had a bad headache for about two weeks and all of a sudden I was singing higher. It’s true. Honest to God.”
However, friends later said that the pipe story was a less embarrassing explanation for why John Phillips had kept her out of the group for so long, the real reason being that he considered her too fat.
With two female members, The New Journeymen needed a new name. According to Doherty, Elliot had the inspiration for the band’s new name; as written on his website:
We’re all just lying around vegging out watching TV and discussing names for the group. The New Journeymen was not a handle that was going to hang on this outfit. John was pushing for The Magic Cyrcle. Eech, but none of us could come up with anything better, then we switch the channel and, hey, it’s the Hells Angels on the Carson show… And the first thing we hear is: “Now hold on there, Hoss. Some people call our women cheap, but we just call them our Mamas.” Cass jumped up: “Yeah! I want to be a Mama.” And Michelle is going: “We’re the Mamas! We’re the Mamas!” OK. I look at John. He’s looking at me going: “The Papas?” Problem solved. A toast! To The Mamas and the Papas. Well, after many, many toasts, Cass and John are passed out.”
Doherty also said that the occasion marked the beginning of his affair with Michelle Phillips. Elliot was in love with Doherty and was displeased when he told her of the affair. Doherty has said that Elliot once proposed to him, but that he was so stoned at the time that he could not even respond.
Elliot was known for her sense of humor and optimism, and was considered by some to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her powerful, distinctive voice was a major factor in their success. She is best remembered for her vocals on the group’s hits “California Dreamin'”, “Monday, Monday”, “Words of Love”, and the solo “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, which the group recorded in 1968 after learning about the death of Fabian Andre, one of the men who co-wrote it, whom Michelle Phillips had met years earlier.
Even though they had officially quit by 1968, The Mamas & the Papas continued to record to meet the terms of their record contract. Their final album was released in 1971.
Rumors abound but the collective decision seems to be that Cass was in love with Denny who had an affair with Michelle who was married to John. Surely this chaos had to be a major reason why the group broke up in 1968 and they all went on to pursue their own thing.
Out of their five No.1 hits, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” became Cass’s launch hit when she turned solo in 1968. Her distinct voice had always emerged from the groups in which she sang. In 1969 she scored big with “It’s Getting Better” and 1970 yielded the hits “Make Your Own Kind of Music” and “New World Coming.” In 1970, Elliot also appeared in the film version of “Pufnstuf” and recorded an album with rock star Dave Mason.
Elliot had two prime time television specials of her own in 1969 and 1973, but most people remember her scores of television appearances throughout the early 1970’s with Mike Douglas, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Tom Jones, Carol Burnett and others. She guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared on that show 13 other times; had successful stints in Las Vegas (after the initial early flop and continued to record for RCA during these years too. Cass had one daughter Owen Vanessa in April 1967 and she was married twice, first (1963-68) to fellow Big 3 and Mugwumps member Jim Hendricks and second to Baron Donald von Wiedenman (1971 for a couple of months).
At the height of her solo career in 1974, Cass traveled to London, England where she performed two weeks of sold-out concerts at the London Palladium.
After the final concert on July 28th, 1974 she telephoned former Mama Michelle Phillips excited and over-joyed with the standing ovations each night, and sadly died in the early morning hours of July 29 at the age of 33.
In 1998, Elliot, John Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their work as The Mamas & the Papas. Her daughter Owen represented her mother and accepted her award.
She did not choke to death on her ham sandwich as rumor once had it, an autopsy concluded that Cass had died of a heart attack. Drummer Keith Moon, of The Who, died in the same room four years later. This tragic London apartment, flat, No.12 at 9 Curzon Place, Mayfair, was owned by singer-songwriter, the late Harry Nilsson, a very close personal friend of John Lennon.
The Truth About Cass Elliot’s Untimely Death
The facts about Cass Elliot’s death have existed since a few days after she died on July 29, 1974. The pathologist who performed the autopsy, Keith Simpson, was one of England’s leading forensic pathologists.
A competent forensic autopsy showed:
1) A heart problem leading to heart failure;
2) No sandwich or any other item in her throat or trachea; and
3) In fact, she had had very little to eat the day before she died.
Furthermore, the drug screen (a standard part of a forensic autopsy) showed no drugs in her system.
Simpson’s conclusion was that Cass died of “heart failure due to fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity”. Although this conclusion was disputed by American pathologists at the time, fatty myocardial degeneration is now recognized as a potentially lethal condition.
One possible theory is that Cass Elliot had a heart condition of this sort for a long time. This would be consistent with the various times she is reported to have passed out during the 1963-74 time period. In a young woman, fainting is usually due to heat, onset of flu, pregnancy, or some other innocuous cause, but if it continues to happen, it warrants investigation. A “cardiac conduction defect” creating a disturbance of heart rhythm just might be caused by a fatty myocardium and could explain a great deal. Failure of the fibers of the heart that should conduct the impulses that cause the heartbeat to do so is a known cause of sudden death.