Cass Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen; September 19, 1941 – July 29, 1974), also
known as Mama Cass, was an American singer and actress who is best known for
having been a member of the Mamas and the Papas. After the group broke up, she
released five solo albums. In 1998, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame for her work with the Mamas and the Papas.
Mama Cass Elliot
September 19, 1941, Baltimore, MD
July 29, 1974, Mayfair, London, England (age 34)
Ellen Naomi Cohen was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1941, the
daughter of Bess (née Levine; 1915–1994) and Philip Cohen (died 1962). All
four of her grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Her family was subject
to significant financial stresses and uncertainties during her childhood years.
Her father, involved in several business ventures throughout his life,
ultimately succeeded through the development of a lunch wagon business in
Baltimore which provided meals to construction workers. Her mother was a
trained nurse. Elliot had a brother, Joseph, and a younger sister, Leah, who
also became a singer and recording artist. Elliot's early life was spent with
her family in Alexandria, Virginia, before the family moved to Baltimore when
Elliot was 15, and where they had briefly lived at the time of Elliot's
Elliot adopted the name "Cass" in high school, possibly borrowing it from
actress Peggy Cass, according to Denny Doherty. She assumed the surname "Elliot"
some time later, in memory of a friend who had died. While in Alexandria, she
attended George Washington High School. When Elliot's family returned to
Baltimore, she attended Forest Park High School. While attending Forest Park
High School, Elliot became interested in acting. She won a small part in the
play The Boy Friend, a summer stock production at the Hilltop Theatre in Owings
Mills, Maryland. 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
After leaving high school to pursue an entertainment career in New York,
Elliot toured in the musical The Music Man in 1962, but lost the part of Miss
Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale to Barbra Streisand. Elliot would
sometimes sing while working as a cloakroom attendant at The Showplace in
Greenwich Village, but she did not pursue a singing career until she moved to
the Washington, D.C. area to attend American University (not Swarthmore College,
as mentioned in the biographical song "Creeque Alley").
America's folk music scene was on the rise when Elliot met banjoist and
singer Tim Rose and singer John Brown, and the three began performing as "The
Triumvirate". In 1963, James Hendricks replaced Brown, and the trio was renamed
the Big 3. Elliot's first recording with the Big 3 was "Winken, Blinken, and
Nod", released by FM Records in 1963. In 1964, the group appeared on an "open
mic" night at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, billed as "Cass Elliot and
the Big 3", followed onstage by folk singer Jim Fosso and bluegrass banjoist
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. In 1965, Doherty persuaded Phillips that Elliot should join
the group, which she did while she and the group members were vacationing in the
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.
The Mamas and The Papas
The Mamas and The Papas
Ed Sullivan Show, 1967
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
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
many to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her powerful, distinctive
voice was a major factor in their string of hits including: "California Dreamin'",
"Monday, Monday", "Words of Love". She also performed the solo "Dream a Little
Dream of Me" (credited on the label of the single as 'Featuring Mama Cass with
the Mamas & the Papas'), 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. Elliot's version is noteworthy for its
contemplative pace, whereas many earlier recordings of "Dream a Little Dream of
Me" (including one by Nat King Cole and another by Ozzie Nelson) had been
up-tempo versions—the song having been written in 1931 as a dance tune.
The Mamas and the Papas continued to record to meet the terms of their record
contract until 1971.
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& Jackson, 2005; Pan Macmillan, 2006), p. 35.
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Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. Archived from the original on June 18, 2014.
Retrieved 27 May 2014.
12. snopes (December 3, 2015). "Mama Cass Hit on the Head with a Pipe :
13. "Dream A Little Dream : Just A-Catchin' Fire". Dennydoherty.com.
Retrieved December 19, 2017.