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Jewish Biography --> Biographies --> Cass Elliot

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Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot (September 19, 1941 July 29, 1974), born Ellen Naomi Cohen, was a noted American singer, best remembered as Mama Cass of the pop quartet The Mamas & the Papas. After the group broke up, she had a successful solo career, releasing nine albums. Elliot was found dead in her hotel room in London from an apparent heart attack after two sold-out performances at the Palladium.

Video: Mama Cass Elliott - Dream A Little Dream Live

Early life and career

Ellen Cohen was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up there and in Alexandria, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, DC), the daughter of a food vendor. She adopted the name "Cass" in high school possibly, as Denny Doherty tells it, borrowing it from the actress Peggy Cass but in any case, it was just 'Cass,' not 'Cassandra.' She assumed the surname Elliot sometime later, in memory of a friend who had died.

She started her acting career with a part in the play The Boy Friend while she was still in school. After dropping out of George Washington High School shortly before graduation, she went to New York City, where she appeared in The Music Man but lost the part of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale to Barbra Streisand in 1962.
While working as a hat check girl at "The Showplace" in Greenwich Village, Elliot would sometimes sing, but it wasn't until she returned to the Washington area, to attend American University, that she began to pursue a singing career. As America's folk music scene was on the rise, 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 Three. Elliot's first recording, Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod, with The Big Three, was released by FM Records in 1963.

When Tim Rose left The Big Three in 1964, Elliot and Hendricks teamed up with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty as The Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Cass performed as a solo act for a while. Yanovsky joined with John Sebastian to co-found The Lovin' Spoonful while Doherty joined The New Journeymen with John Phillips and his wife, Michelle. In 1965, Doherty finally convinced Phillips that Cass should join the group. She did so, officially, while they were vacationing in the Virgin Islands.

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,

"Its 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. Its 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.

Solo career

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.[4] The marriage reportedly was never consummated and was annulled in 1968.[5] In 1971, Elliot married journalist Baron Donald von Wiedenman[6][7] 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 Al Jardine.

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.[11] 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."[12] 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 Music.

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.

Solo discography


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


1968: "Dream 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

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Cass Elliott.