|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 shortly before joining the group, while they
were in the Virgin Islands. Elliot herself confirmed the story; in an
interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 she said,
"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, according to
people who knew her well, this was not true - Elliot always had a
standout singing voice. Her friends said that the pipe story was used as
a more politically-correct explanation for why John had kept her out of
the group for so long, because the real reason she was not accepted
sooner was that John considered her to be too fat.
The Mamas and the Papas
Now that The New Journeymen had two female members, it needed a new
name. According to Doherty, Elliot had the inspiration for the band's
new name. Doherty writes 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 Hell's Angels on this talk 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 went on to say that the occasion marked the
beginning of his affair with Michelle. Elliot was in love with Doherty,
so was displeased when he told her about the affair. Doherty has said
that Cass once proposed to him, but that he was so stoned at the time,
he could not even respond.
Elliot, known for her sense of humor and optimism, was considered by
some to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her warm,
distinctive voice was a large factor in their success. She is best
remembered for her vocals on the group's Billboard hits "California
Dreamin'", "Monday Monday", and "Words of Love", and particularly for
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. Elliot's
version is noteworthy for being a ballad, whereas almost all earlier
recordings of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (including one by Nat King
Cole) had been quick, up-tempo versions — the song having actually been
written in 1931 as a dance tune for the nightclubs of the day.
They continued to record to meet the terms of their
record contract until their final album was released in 1971. Elliot's
voice is noticeably weak on that album, as she herself was physically
weak from crash dieting.
After the breakup of The Mamas & the Papas, Elliot went on to have a
successful solo singing career. Her most successful recording during
this period was 1968's Dream a Little Dream of Me from her solo album of
the same name, released by Dunhill Records though it had originally been
recorded for and released on the album The Papas & the Mamas Presented
By The Mamas and the Papas earlier that year. She headlined briefly in
Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace for the unusually lucrative pay of
USD$40,000 per week, although her performances were not well reviewed.
She was a regular on TV talk shows and variety shows in the 1970s,
including The Julie Andrews Hour, The Mike Douglas Show, The Andy
Williams Show, Hollywood Squares, and The Carol Burnett Show. She
guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared on that
show 13 other times. Elliot also was a guest panelist for a week in late
1973 on the hit game show Match Game '73. She appeared in the 1973 Saga
of Sonora, a TV music-comedy-Western special with stars of the day such
as Jill St. John, Vince Edwards, Zero Mostel, and Lesley Ann Warren. She
also sang the jingle "Hurry on down to Hardee's, where the burgers are
charco-broiled" for Hardee's fast-food adverts.
Throughout the early 1970s, Elliot continued her
acting career as well. She had a featured role in the 1970 movie
Pufnstuf and made guest-star acting appearances on TV's The New Scooby-Doo
Movies, Young Dr. Kildare, Love, American Style, and The Red Skelton
Show, among others.
Family and death
Apart from her time with Denny Doherty, Elliot was
married twice. The first marriage, to bandmate Jim Hendricks, began in
1963. This was reportedly a purely platonic arrangement, however, to
assist him in avoiding being drafted into the army during the Vietnam
War. The marriage reportedly was never consummated and was annulled
in 1968. In 1971, Elliot married journalist Baron Donald von
Wiedenman Von Wiedenman was heir to a Bavarian barony. That
marriage ended in divorce after a few months.
Elliot gave birth to a daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot,
on April 26, 1967. She never publicly identified the father, but many
years later, Michelle Phillips helped Owen locate her biological father.
Owen grew up to become a singer as well and toured with former Beach Boy
At the height of her solo career in 1974, Elliot
performed two sold-out concerts at the London Palladium. She telephoned
Michelle Phillips after the final concert, utterly elated that she had
received standing ovations each night. She then retired for the evening,
and died in her sleep of a heart attack.
An urban legend arose that Elliot died choking on a
ham sandwich. Speaking to the press shortly after her body was
discovered, the police noted that a partly eaten sandwich had been found
in her room and speculated that she may have choked while eating it.
When the coroner's autopsy was performed, no food was found in her
trachea and the cause of death was determined to have been heart failure
and that she had died in her sleep. But by then, the specious Fatal Ham
Sandwich story was already making the rounds and the real cause of death
was rarely discussed. The New York Times did report on August 6,
1974, that "Dr. Keith Simpson, a British pathologist, and Gavin
Thurston, a London coroner, issued a report yesterday that ruled out the
theory that "Mama" Cass Elliot choked to death on a ham sandwich."
In an odd coincidence, Elliot died in the same flat, No.12 at 9 Curzon
Place, Mayfair that The Who drummer Keith Moon would die in, a little
over four years later.
At Elliot's death, her sister, Leah Kunkel, received
custody of Cass' daughter Owen, then just seven years old. Kunkel is
also a singer and charted in 1984 as a member of the Coyote Sisters on
the single "Straight From The Heart (Into Your Life)." Kunkel was
interviewed by VH1 in 1997 and discussed her famous sister for the
"Mamas & Papas" episode of the network's documentary series Behind The
Tributes, barbs and popular culture references
Since her death, Mama Cass in general, and
specifically the circumstances surrounding her death, have been the butt
of jokes in comedy routines, movies, and songs, by performers such as
Frank Zappa, Adam Sandler, Denis Leary, Mike Myers (in the first Austin
Powers movie), TISM, Jack Black, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Robin Williams,
Foetus and others.
There also have been tributes to her in the years
since her death. The song "Mama, I Remember You Now" by the Swedish
artist Marit Bergman is a tribute to Mama Cass. She was the subject of a
2004 stage production in Dublin, The Songs of Mama Cass, with Kristin
Kapelli performing main vocals. The Crosby, Stills & Nash Greatest Hits
album released in 2005 was dedicated to Cass Elliot. The British film
Beautiful Thing heavily features her recordings, and the memory of Cass
plays a role in the life of one character.
Reaching a new generation of fans, Elliot's recording
of Make Your Own Kind of Music is featured prominently in several
episodes of seasons 2 and 3 of Lost. Her recording of It's Getting
Better was also featured in a season 4 episode of Lost.
1968: Dream a Little Dream - US #87
1969: Bubblegum, Lemonade, And... Something for Mama - US #91
1969: Make Your Own Kind of Music - US #169 (a reissue of Bubblegum,
Lemonade... with the hit title song added)
1971: Mama's Big Ones (solo greatest hits) - US #194
1971: Dave Mason and Mama Cass - US #49
1972: Cass Elliot
1972: The Road Is No Place for a Lady
1973: Don't Call Me Mama Anymore
A Little Dream Live" (Mama Cass with the
Mamas & the Papas) - US #12 Pop/#2 AC, UK #11
1968: "California Earthquake" - US #67
1969: "Move in a Little Closer, Baby" - US #58 Pop/#32 AC
1969: "It's Getting Better" - US #30 Pop/#13 AC, UK #8
1969: "Make Your Own Kind of Music" - US #36 Pop/#6 AC
1970: "New World Coming" - US #42 Pop/#4 AC
1970: "A Song That Never Comes" - US #99 Pop/#25 AC
1970: "The Good Times Are Coming" - US #104 Pop/#19 AC
1970: "Don't Let the Good Life Pass You By" - US #110 Pop/#34 AC