The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘All the Leaves Are Brown …’

Posted on | June 20, 2019 | 1 Comment


One thing I’ve tried to do with my kids is what I call “cultural education.” Like, there’s no reason children should grow up without an awareness of rock-and-roll classics, and I’ve had many rewarding experiences like the time I heard my youngest son, born in 2000, in the shower singing along to his Spotify rotation of Led Zeppelin. How cool is that?

A couple of days ago, I was driving my youngest daughter (born in 2002) to her summer internship and told her to look up “California Dreamin'” on her Spotify. Why was that song in my mind? Probably some headline I’d read about California’s recent descent into Third World chaos. It’s a forlorn bit of nostalgia to recall what California signified in the 1960s, before Democrats turned it into a socialist nightmare of typhus infections, homeless encampments and heroin needles. At any rate, the song had been stuck in my head and so I asked my 16-year-old daughter to play it on her phone — she’d never heard it before — and when it ended, I said, “That was Number One for the Mamas and Papas in 1966.”

My daughter is quite the chip off the old block, however, and she quickly Googled up the fact that “California Dreamin'” only made it to #4.

That seemed wrong, an injustice. From the first notes of the classical guitar intro to the sonic crescendo of the vocal harmony ending, “California Dreamin'” is a musical masterpiece, two-and-a-half minutes of pure genius in the key of A-minor. In 2004, when Rolling Stone published its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” this 1966 hit was #89 on the list and yet it never actually topped the charts? When I got home, I decided to explore this mystery further and, being rather obsessive about research, I dived in deep.


The Mamas and the Papas were formed in 1965 after the breakup of John Phillips’s first group, The Journeymen. Phillips, the son of a Marine Corps officer, had grown up in Alexandria, Virginia, attended a military school and won an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but quit during his first year and then enrolled at Hampden-Sydney College before dropping out to pursue his musical career in New York City. Phillips became part of the folk-music scene in Greenwich Village, and The Journeymen landed a record contract in 1961, when Phillips was 25. (Click here to watch the group on the TV show Hootenanny in 1963.)

In 1962, while touring with The Journeymen, Phillips met a long-legged 17-year-old model in San Francisco. He divorced his first wife and married the model, Michelle Gilliam, but this new romance was one of the factors that contributed to the breakup of The Journeymen. The other factor was the arrival of The Beatles and the subsequent “British invasion,” which put an end to the folk-music scene. For a while, Phillips tried to keep going down the folk road, teaming up with Denny Doherty (from another Greenwich Village group, the Mugwumps) and Michelle to perform as The New Journeymen, but with little success. It was Doherty who suggested adding his former Mugwumps colleague and occasional girlfriend Cass Elliot (neé Ellen Cohen) to form a quartet. The new group’s name was inspired by the notorious Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, who referred to their girlfriends as “Mamas.”

Meanwhile, there was a song inspired by Michelle Phillips’s first trip to New York in 1963. According to John Phillips, the couple went for a walk around the city “and all she had was California clothing . . . tennis shoes and . . . a tank top and jeans or something.” There was snow on the ground and Michelle was cold, so the couple went into a church to escape the weather and let her warm up for a few minutes. That night, in their Greenwich Village hotel room, Michelle was asleep while John was playing his guitar when the song began to take shape:

So I tried to wake Michelle up to write the lyrics down that I was doing. And she said, “Leave me alone. I want to sleep.”

He persisted until she did wake up, thus earning herself half the songwriting royalties of one of the greatest songs of the decade. The couple offered the song to folk singer Barry McGuire, who did them the favor of introducing them to Dunhill Records chief Lou Adler. The Mamas and the Papas performed background vocals on McGuire’s version of the song, but his gruff baritone didn’t give the record much energy. So what happened next is that, after Adler signed the Mamas and the Papas to their own contract, John Phillips took the master tape of the session, erased McGuire’s voice, and replaced it with him and Doherty singing the lead in duet. On the second verse (“Stopped into a church”), Doherty sings the solo lead in a strong bluesy tenor and then comes the song’s real magic moment. McGuire’s version of “California Dreamin'” had included a forgettable harmonica solo, but for the Mamas and the Papas version, Phillips brought in top studio pro Bud Shank, a veteran L.A. jazz musician. Shank listened to the track, improvised the alto flute solo, and “nailed it on the first take.” It was absolutely brilliant.


The success of “California Dreamin'” had an important influence on pop music in the 1960s, showing that the fusion of rock and folk — pioneered in 1965 by the Byrds — was a durable phenomenon. It helped establish the West Coast as the main scene for American rock music, solidified in 1967 when Jon Phillips organized the Monterrey Pop Festival, with a number of subsequently famous acts, including Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, performing in a show with the Mamas and the Papas as headliners. It’s possible that the subsequent careers of acts like the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne might never have happened had it not been for “California Dreamin’.”

OK, so why did it never make it to Number One?

When my daughter informed me that “California Dreamin'” peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, my assumption was that this was because the top three slots at the time must have been held by classic hits by major groups — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, various Motown hitmakers. And indeed, after the song was first released in December 1965, the songs at the top of the chart included many such big hits by big names. For the week of Jan. 29, 1966, when the Mamas and the Papas were at #44, the Beatles had the #1 spot with “We Can Work It Out,” and upper reaches of the chart also included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (“Going to a Go-Go,” #23), Stevie Wonder (“Uptight,” #21), the Rolling Stones (“As Tears Go By,” #6) and the Beach Boys (“Barbara Ann,” #2). But these weren’t the artists who ultimately froze “California Dreamin'” out of the top spot. Instead, on the week of March 12, when the Mamas and the Papas’ record peaked at #4, the song in the third-place spot was a wretched piece of drek by Herman’s Hermits. Why was this inspid tune, “Listen People,” at #3? Apparently because it was featured in a Connie Francis movie, When The Boys Meet The Girls.

OK, that was a fluke. Maybe there was some Hollywood payola involved, but what about the #2 slot that week in March? A one-hit wonder, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” by Nancy Sinatra. What luck, eh? But the real shocker was that the #1 song that week was another one-hit wonder, a patriotic tune by a military hero: “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. Not a rock classic, to say the least.

Imagine that. You record one of the greatest records of the decade, but never get to Number One because of a stupid song from a crappy teen movie, a novelty tune by Frank Sinatra’s daughter, and a flag-waving tribute to militarism. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!

So that was this week’s “cultural education” lesson. Kind of depressing, and the fate of the Mamas and the Papas makes it even sadder. The group broke up in part because Michelle Phillips cheated on her husband, first with Denny Doherty and then with Gene Clark of the Byrds. John Phillips became a heroin addict and, allegedly, raped his own daughter.

What’s perhaps weirdest of all about the Mamas and the Papas is that, whereas John Phillips was the leader of the group, Doherty sang lead on their first hit, and Michelle was movie-star beautiful, “Mama Cass” was the fan favorite, and the only member to have any musical success after the group broke up. The obese daughter of a Baltimore delicatessen owner, she had an IQ of 165 and had toured in a road company of The Music Man before becoming involved in the folk music scene.

Alas, Cass Elliot died at age 32, reportedly choking on a sandwich.

All this, you see, from a song stuck in my head and a conversation with my teenage daughter. The car broke down today. Hit the freaking tip jar.

UPDATE: The comments immediately included objections to my statement that Cass Elliot’s death was “reportedly” from choking on a sandwich. As I said in reply to these comments, I linked to a contemporaneous Rolling Stone article that included this version, attributed to a “post-mortem” examination and a “coroner’s hearing.” This account was also part of the New York Times obituary: “According to The Associated Press, her physician said the singer probably choked on a sandwich.”


(Click to enlarge the image.) Yes, of course, I was aware that this has since been classified as an “urban legend,” although I have found only unsourced secondhand stories of how this legend allegedly got started: Supposedly, when they found Mama Cass’s body — she was in England, where she’d just played the London Palladium — there was a sandwich on the nightstand, and this led the coroner to jump to an erroneous conclusion that she had asphyxiated. Heart failure was apparently the actual cause of death, and it has been suggested that Elliot’s health had been impaired by her extreme diets in an effort to lose weight. She had been hospitalized a few months earlier after collapsing prior to a scheduled TV appearance. Certainly, it was not my intention to malign Cass Elliot — a talented performer I always admired — by repeating a disproven story. However, in point of fact, I am still not certain the death-by-choking story has been disproven, because I could not find online any well-sourced account explaining how the original (and supposedly discredited) report made it into the mainstream media before the truth was discovered. So I guess the bottom line here is the same as always: Never trust the New York Times.

Oh, and what I said about my car breaking down? Not an urban legend. Our ancient Nissan overheated on the interstate and I’ve now got a tow bill to worry about, not to mention whatever the repairs cost, so please remember the Five Most Important Words in the English Language:


UPDATE II: Welcome, Instapundit readers!



One Response to “‘All the Leaves Are Brown …’”

  1. Daybook. – Dark Brightness
    June 21st, 2019 @ 6:07 am

    […] I was driving my youngest daughter (born in 2002) to her summer internship and told her to look up “California Dreamin’” on her Spotify. Why was that song in my mind? Probably some headline I’d read about California’s recent descent into Third World chaos. It’s a forlorn bit of nostalgia to recall what California signified in the 1960s, before Democrats turned it into a socialist nightmare of typhus infections, homeless encampments and heroin needles. […]