The last surviving member of the 1960s band The Mamas and The Papas, Michelle Phillips talks about the influence of Cass Elliott and a possible film in the making.
Michelle Phillips talks about The Mamas and The Papas legacy
Visiting Michelle Phillips at her home in Cheviot Hills, Los Angeles, it is not long before one gets a glimpse of the high life. "Jane Fonda was over for dinner last week," she says, while the day after our interview, Phillips will fly to Hawaii to vacation with Kris Kristofferson and his wife.
At 66, my interviewee is the last surviving member of the revered vocal group The Mamas & The Papas, and in the 1980s, her portrayal of Anne Matheson Sumner in the US soap Knots Landing saw her voted "Best TV Villainess". It's the ever-accruing royalties for The Mamas & The Papas' California Dreamin', though, that keep Phillips in this fine lifestyle.
There's an uncharacteristic chill in the LA air, so my hostess lights a fire and we repair to her lounge. With her hair up and her pale blue eyes sparkling, she looks remarkably well-preserved, this down to natural good looks and excellent genes, rather than her fifth husband Steven Zax being a plastic surgeon. We're here to discuss The Mamas & The Papas, though, and their extraordinary legacy and success.
"We toured in a Lear jet and that's the only way to fly, baby!" says Phillips. "Success is a bubble, though, and we knew the wonderful time we were having couldn't possibly last."
Born in Long Beach, Phillips was the only Californian member of The Mamas & The Papas. The group formed in 1965 when Michelle and her then-husband John Phillips joined forces with "Mama" Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, both of whom had sung with the New York City-based folk act, The Mugwumps.
John Phillips was the chief songwriter, Michelle had the model looks, and Denny's fine tenor fuelled US Number 1 single Monday, Monday, but it was undoubtedly "Mama" Cass - a 300lb gal who cursed like a sailor and sang like an angel - who brought most of the spirit to the group. Gregarious and hedonistic, Elliot befriended the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and The Beatles, but her weight problems sparked bouts of low self-esteem. In Eddi Fiegel's biography of Elliot, Dream a Little Dream of Me, one winces to read of Cass pasting a photograph of her head over that of a waif-thin cheerleader, then trying to pass off the resulting montage as genuine.
"People assume that there must have been tension between us, but the truth is I wanted to be just like Cass," says Phillips. "Cass liberated me; she stopped John trying to have too much control over me. She taught me a lot about feminism, and she always encouraged me, although I was obviously inferior to her as a singer."
Philips describes the moment she first met Cass.
"My life went from black and white to Technicolor. There was Cass: this big, big girl wearing a pink Angora sweater, little white go-go boots and the longest false eyelashes you can imagine."
Initially, the four singers bonded while living communally in a beach tent on The Virgin Islands. Later that same summer they made it to Los Angeles, where Cass's singer friend Barry McGuire arranged for them to audition for the Dunhill Records chief, Lou Adler. Adler was thrilled by their unique vocal blend and signed them on the spot. Between 1965 and 1968, the group had 11 Top 40 singles in the US, and they would go on to sell more than 100 million records.
Relations between the four band members were complicated, but like Fleetwood Mac after them, The Mamas & The Papas were adept at turning love entanglements into song. Michelle Phillips had married John Phillips when she was 18 and he was "a very mature 26", but she soon had a fling with a boy she describes as being "much more age-appropriate". That dalliance led John Phillips to write Go Where You Wanna Go, while Michelle's later, more testing affair with Denny Doherty sparked the John Phillips / Doherty co-write, I Saw Her Again.
"When Denny and I got caught, John made Denny write that with him", says Phillips with a laugh. "I remember saying: 'Don't you think that's a bit sadistic, John?' He said: 'Well Michelle, I believe in turning tragedy into publishing.'"
Her co-write contribution on California Dreamin' aside, Phillips' greatest contribution to The Mamas & The Papas is perhaps her charming lead vocal on Dedicated to the One I Love. But with Cass's unrequited love for Doherty stretching to a rejected marriage proposal, and Michelle torn between Phillips and Doherty, it was perhaps inevitable that Michelle would be fired, and that the group would implode shortly afterwards.
Elliot died of a heart attack in 1974, aged 32. Phillips died of heart failure in 2001, and Doherty died of an abdominal aneurysm in 2007. Elliot's sudden death in London afforded no goodbyes, but Michelle was able to make her peace with John Phillips shortly before his death, and she also flew to Nova Scotia for Doherty's funeral.
"Denny's children adored him," she says, "and I will never be able to erase the memory of his son kneeling at the grave. When Denny and I met in the years before his death, the focus was always on our children and our respective partners, but in some ways our love affair went right down to the wire."
And how does it feel to be the sole custodian of The Mamas & The Papas legacy?
"Well, I did say I'd bury them all," says Phillips. "I remember that when they fired me, my attorney told me to get a written release. I went down to Western Studios and there was Jill [Gibson; the singer who briefly replaced Phillips] with my tambourine.
"John said: 'What the hell do you want? Get out!' Then he said: 'And stop calling Denny in the middle of the night, would you?' Denny was sitting there too, so I said: 'Is this true, Denny? Don't you want me to call you?' He just hung his head and said nothing, so I walked over and slugged him so hard he fell off his stool. And then as I was walking out I shouted: 'I'll bury you all!'"
The extraordinary story of The Mamas & The Papas continues to impact Phillips's life. Indeed, she and a "big-name writer" have been readying a movie screenplay about the band. Phillips confides that a major production deal was in place, but that it was scuppered when John Phillips's daughter Mackenzie published High on Arrival, the controversial memoir in which she alleges her late father subjected her to a 10-year incestuous relationship.
Michelle, whose daughter by John Phillips, Chynna, went on to sing in the pop group Wilson-Phillips, is understandably guarded about the book's contents, but says she takes Mackenzie Phillip's claims with "a large pinch of salt".
"When I didn't go on Oprah Winfrey with her she said I was probably just protecting the brand," Phillips adds. "Well, how crude. This is my ex-husband we're talking about."
As for The Mamas & The Papas movie, Phillips maintains it will be made at some point, so as our interview winds down I ask who will play her. The singer smiles as she hits upon just the right answer: "You know, I don't think that girl has been born yet."