Mama Cass Elliot took the world by storm with her magical voice. As the singer of the pop-folk-rock group The Mamas and the Papas, she, together with her bandmates, defined an entire era of music, paving the way for other musicians and women in particular.
But the circumstances of her passing have long been a mystery. Now, her good friend Sue Cameron has explained what really happened.
The Mamas and the Papas went on to not just become a famous band. Rather, the wonderful pop-folk-rock group defined an entire era of music with their hippie clothes, sweet songs and special group of characters.
Their success was enormous, with the band selling millions of albums, spending weeks and weeks at the top of the charts, and later getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Mamas and the Papas
With songs like California Dreamin’, Monday Monday, Snowqueen of Texas and Dream A Little Dream of Me, The Mamas and the Papas will forever have a special place in music. But the group ended on a low note, their image slightly tarnished by drugs and other problems.
The group might have only spent three years together, but in that time they managed to do something pretty unique. Someone who definitely stood out was wonderful singer Elliot Cass, more famously known as Mama Cass.
She was one of the most talented singers of her generation and found success both with the group – thanks to her wonderful harmonies that made The Mamas and the Papas into the great band they were – and also as a solo artist. However, Mama Cass tragically passed away aged just 32, with the early reports suggesting that she had died after choking on a sandwich.
But now, following an interview with her good friend Sue Cameron, it’s been clarified that choking wasn’t her actual cause of death.
Ellen Naomi Cohen, more famously known as Mama Cass, was born September 11, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland. It didn’t take long before her family realized she was a very special little girl who was destined for biggr things. Even they, however, didn’t know she would go on to achieve such legendary status.
By age four, Cass could already speak five languages. Her parents, who originated in Poland and had moved to the U.S. as refugees, often times took in refugees themselves arriving from Poland, Germany, Russia and Italy. This Cass herself confirmed, according to the book Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot. The young Cass learned how they spoke, and also the songs they brought with them.
Mama Cass had always been a big girl. However, it didn’t affect her.
“I’ve always been different,” Cass said in the early 1970s. “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.”
Cass didn’t enjoy playing with toys like the other kids her age. At age nine, she was instead interested in politics. She grew up fast and developed into maturity well before her peers.
She even asked a doctor friend her family: “What’s the world situation like?”
“It bowled him over I’ll tell you that,” Cass’s 94-year-old aunt Lil Finn said. “But we were always discussing politics in our house and she would listen in and was a very astute little girl.”
Mama Cass – name
In high school, Mama Cass grew into her new name. She decided to change her first name to “Cass” due to then-popular TV comedian Peggy Cass, and chose a new surname “Elliot” in tribute to an old friend who’d recently passed away.
Ellen Cohen was now Cass Elliot. Later on, she’d end up with the now legendary name “Mama Cass”, but we’ll get to that in a moment!
So, how did Mama Cass even get into music, one might ask?
First of all, she left her home for New York at age 17. She pursued a career in acting, though upon arriving in New York, she didn’t even have an high school diploma! She toured with the musical The Music Man for a short while, and also spent time working in the cloakroom of The Showplace in the West Village.
At this time, Mama Cass was all-in regarding the pursuit of a career in the entertainment industry. She performed at late-night “open mics” at area bars and, in 1962, she auditioned for a part in the Broadway production of I Can Get it for You Wholesale. Another young woman named Barbra Streisand got the part and, at 22, Cass decided to move to Washington to study at the American University.
This would be the big turning point for Cass, who at that point mostly saw herself as an actress more than a singer. That was about to change.
Starting her first band
Shortly after her move to Washington D.C., Mama Cass got involved with her first band. Together with singers Tim Rose and John Brown, she formed a trio called The Triumvirate. They enjoyed success, playing both popular and country genres, and soon they emerged on the folk music scene, which was on the rise.
Cass also produced an off-Broadway play at the time, which was played at Café La Mama in New York. Maybe this also was an influential factor in her choice of adopting her future moniker “Mama Cass”.
The next year, in 1963, James Hendricks replaced John Brown and the band changed its name to The Big Three. On posters, it often times also advertised “Featuring Mama Cass Elliot”, and soon Mama Cass would be a married woman. She married new band member James, who then couldn’t be drafted into the Vietnam War.
The Big 3
Birth of The Mamas and the Papas
Rose eventually left left the group and Hendricks moved to Los Angeles, with he and Cass filing for divorce in 1968.
However, before that, Mama Cass would meet some people that would pave her way to the top of the charts. First, Denny Doherty joined her new band before joining The New Journeymen, a group that included John Phillips. Doherty convinced John and his new wife Michelle that Mama Cass was just what the group wanted. Her commanding voice with a beautiful harmony would suit them perfectly.
John, Michelle, Denny and Mama Cass formed the group that would go on to make music that would spread all over the world.
The Mamas and the Papas was born in 1965, and it didn’t take long before they started making a name for themselves. Their first single? California Dreamin’.
It all started in 1963, with John and Michelle Phillips spending time in New York City. Michelle hailed from Long Beach, California, and the winter in “The Big Apple” wasn’t great.
“We were staying at the Albert Hotel, near Washington Square. It was a fleabag. I had never seen snow before, I had never been to the East Coast. I was miserable,” she told the LA Times in 2008.
The two went for a walk and Michelle entered the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which weeks later would become an important detail. John woke Michelle in the middle of the night with a guitar in his hand.
They started working on the lyrics that same night.
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
On such a winter’s day…
“He had the lyrics for those first eight bars that night,” Michelle recalled.
“I added the next few lines about the church. He hated it. Just hated it. But he didn’t have anything better.” That portion of the song — ‘Stopped in to church / I passed along the way / Well, I got down on my knees / And I began to pray’ — has an interesting history. Not everyone hears the same lyrics, and that includes the people who sang it.”
Mama Cass – career
A few years later, when Mama Cass was on the road with the rest of the band, she heard it for the first time, and the rest is history.
California Dreamin’ was released in December of 1965 with a full-page advertisement in Billboard Magazine. The smash-hit peaked at No. 4 in the US and reached No. 23 in the UK. But the song wouldn’t just fade away. Instead, it became more and more popular over the years.
In 2001, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Also, Rolling Stone Magazine has placed the song on No. 89 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The Mamas and The Papas continued to make music, releasing a total of five albums that included hit songs like Monday Monday, Creeque Alley and Snowqueen of Texas.
Mama Cass became very important to Michelle. She’d dated John Phillips since high school and she felt insecure of herself.
“She would always encourage me to go for the note [when we sang]: ‘Go for it! You can do it! I know you’re gonna make it! I’ll be there for you!’ She was also very protective of me and assertive for me where John was concerned.” Michelle recalled.
“She said, ‘Don’t let him boss you around like that! You are Michelle! You cannot be afraid of him!’ I felt very insecure because I met and married him when I was in high school. [But John] could be belittling. Cass helped me with my self-esteem, forcefully.”
Mama Cass – daughter
On April 26, 1967, Cass gave birth to daughter Owen Vanessa Elliot, and raised her by herself. She managed to keep both the pregnancy and the identity of the father a secret – it wasn’t until later the father turned out to be guitarist Charles Wayne Day.
The Mamas and the Papas rose to stardom very quickly, but, just as quickly as they had flown to the top, they fell.
After just three years together, Mama Cass decided to leave the band to pursue a solo career.
“Well, having the baby changed my life a lot,” Cass told Rolling Stone in October of 1968. ”I don’t want to go on the road, you see. It’s actually a matter of economics, much like the Vietnamese war, I guess. I didn’t want to go on the road and I wanted to stay home with my baby.
Mama Cass continued explaining that she wanted to pursue her solo career, but also try television and movies.
Start of solo career
At least the breakup from the group wasn’t dramatic. She explains that it was a unwritten agreement that whenever anybody wanted to quit, they could just leave.
”So I went to John and said ’Look, it’s been two and a half years and I’m really tired and I want to do seem stuff on my own,” Cass said. “He said ‘Well, perhaps it wouldn’t be proper for you to do that as a member of the group, so if you want to leave, we’ll understand.”
Mama Cass continued with her solo career, delivering several performances in Las Vegas, touring the country and guest starring on several shows including The Andy Williams Show and The Johnny Cash Show.
One of her most famous and most played solo songs was the cover of Make Your Own Kind of Music, which reached No. 36. She was actually trying to get rid of her stage name from her time with The Mamas and the Papas. To that end, her last album, released in 1973, was titled Don’t Call Me Mama Any More.
“I never created the Big Mama image,” she said. “The public does it for you.”
Mama Cass – cause of death
However, Mama Cass’s life was to end in tragedy. In 1974, she played two shows at The Palladium in London, UK. Her good friend Sue Cameron recalled in an interview with People Magazine earlier in 2020 just how happy Cass was.
“After she had played two nights there, she called crying with joy telling me that she had got a standing ovation both nights and she had sold out both nights, she was just as happy as I’d ever seen her or heard her,” she says.
The next day, Sue Cameron heard the tragic news. Cass “Mama Cass” Elliot, had passed away at 32.
At first, the public heard that the female music icon with the beautiful voice had died after choking. However, the truth was something else: Mama Cass passed away due to a heart attack.
Sue Cameron, who was working as a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter at the time, got the call from Cass’s manager Allan Carr.
“[He] picked up the phone and he was hysterical. Allan said, ‘You’ve got to tell them that she died choking on a ham sandwich,” Sue recalls.
“You must go to your typewriter and write that. There’s a half of a ham sandwich on her nightstand.’ I didn’t ask any questions,” says Cameron.
Cass Elliot’s daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell, said that her mom experimented with dangerous diets before her death.
“She would go on starvation diets—she would drink only water for five days and then have steak for two days. She told Esquire magazine that she’d gone from 250 pounds down to a 170. One ramification of losing all that weight so fast is you lose muscle mass,” she told Nexttribe.
Female icon and role model
Around 400 people, including her mother and Michelle Phillips, attended the funeral in the Hollywood Memorial Park. She was buried in the Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.
In 1998, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mama Cass was a female icon, delivering wonderful music to the world. She was a proud single mother, but also broke barriers in other areas. Cass broke the weight-shaming stigma and paved the way for other women to accept themselves for who they were.
Her daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot – now Owen Elliot Kugell – is 53 years old and married to record producer Jack Kugell. They have two children, Zoe, 19, and Noah, 16.
“She was a one-woman triumph against adversity; she was ahead of her time; women now are finally doing what she did 50 years ago,” Owen said in June of 2020.
“I look back on her and realize that, just by example, she taught me, and others, not to accept it when someone says you can’t do something.”
Mama Cass Elliot truly did something special and set an example for future generations. We will always have her music, charisma and lovely voice close to our hearts.
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