Jewish Actors, Playwrights, Comedians, Musicians
Cass Elliot (September 19, 1941 – July 29, 2021), born Ellen Naomi Cohen and also known as Mama Cass, was a Jewish born American singer and member of The Mamas & the Papas. After the group broke up, Mama Cass Elliot released five solo albums. In 1998, Elliot, John Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their work as The Mamas & the Papas.
Early life and career
Ellen Cohen was born to Philip and Bess Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland, where Mama Cass Elliot grew up. The family then moved to Alexandria, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, D.C.). Mama Cass Elliot 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 "Cass", not "Cassandra." Mama Cass Elliot assumed the surname Elliot sometime later, in memory of a friend who had died.
MAKE YOUR OWN KIND OF MUSIC
While still attending George
Washington High School, Mama Cass Elliot became interested in acting and was cast
in a school production of the play The Boy Friend. Mama Cass Elliot left high
school shortly before graduation and relocated to New York City to
further her acting career, and toured in the musical 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 cloakroom attendant at The Showplace in Greenwich Village, Elliot would sometimes sing, but it wasn't until Mama Cass Elliot returned to the Washington area, to attend American University, that Mama Cass Elliot 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 with The Big Three was Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod, was released by FM Records in 1963.
When Tim Rose left The Big Three in 1964, Elliot and Hendricks teamed 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, a group that also included John Phillips and his wife, Michelle. In 1965, Doherty convinced Phillips that Cass should join the group. Mama Cass Elliot did so while Mama Cass Elliot and the group members were vacationing in the Virgin Islands.
A popular legend about Elliot is that her vocal range was improved by three notes after Mama Cass Elliot was hit on the head by some copper tubing shortly before joining The New Journeymen in the Virgin Islands. Elliot herself 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, he considered her too fat.
The Mamas and the Papas
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 Doherty wrote 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 Hells 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 also says that the occasion marked the beginning of his affair with Michelle Phillips. Elliot, who was in love with Doherty, was displeased when he told her of the affair. Doherty has said that Mama Cass Elliot 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 powerful, distinctive voice was a large factor in their
success. Mama Cass Elliot is best remembered for her vocals on the group's 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 its
contemplative pace, whereas almost all earlier recordings of "Dream
a Little Dream of Me" (including one by Nat King Cole) had been
up-tempo versions—the song having actually been written in 1931 as a
dance tune for the nightclubs of the day.
After the breakup of The Mamas & the Papas, Elliot embarked on a 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 released on the album The Papas & the Mamas Presented By The Mamas and the Papas earlier that year. Mama Cass Elliot headlined briefly in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace for $40,000 per week, but her performances were not well reviewed.
Elliot had two television variety specials: The Mama Cass Television Show (ABC, 1969) and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (CBS, 1973). Mama Cass Elliot was a regular guest 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, The Johnny Cash Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Carol Burnett Show and was a guest panelist for a week on the game show Match Game '73. Mama Cass Elliot guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared on that show 13 other times. Mama Cass Elliot also appeared on and co-hosted The Music Scene on ABC and was featured on the first The Midnight Special on NBC. Mama Cass Elliot performed in Saga of Sonora, a 1973 TV music-comedy-western special with Jill St. John, Vince Edwards, Zero Mostel, and Lesley Ann Warren. Mama Cass Elliot also sang the jingle "Hurry on down to Hardee's, where the burgers are charco-broiled" for Hardee's fast-food advertisements.
Throughout the early 1970s, Elliot continued her acting career as well. Mama Cass Elliot had a featured role in the 1970 movie Pufnstuf and made guest 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
Elliot was married twice, the first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her groupmate in The Big Three and The Mugwumps. This was reportedly a platonic arrangement 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 who was heir to a Bavarian barony. Their marriage ended in divorce after a few months.
Elliot gave birth to a daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot, on April 26, 1967. Mama Cass Elliot 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 Beach Boy Al Jardine.
At the height of her solo career in 1974, Elliot performed two weeks of sold-out concerts at the London Palladium. Mama Cass Elliot telephoned Michelle Phillips after the final concert on July 28, elated that Mama Cass Elliot had received standing ovations each night. Mama Cass Elliot then retired for the evening, and died in her sleep at age 32. Sources state her death was due to a heart attack. Elliot died in a London flat, No. 12 at 9 Curzon Place, Mama Cass Elliotpherd Market, Mayfair, which was on loan from singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Four years later, The Who's drummer Keith Moon died in the same flat at the same age.
Elliot was entombed in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. After her death, Elliot's younger 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 sister for the "Mamas & Papas" episode of the network's documentary series Behind The Music.
An oft-repeated urban legend states that Elliot choked to death on a ham sandwich. The story, which started following the discovery of her body, was based on speculation in the initial media coverage. Police had told reporters that a partially eaten sandwich found in her room might have been to blame, though an autopsy had yet to be conducted. Despite the post-mortem examination finding that Elliot had died of a heart attack and no food at all was found in her windpipe, the false story that Mama Cass Elliot choked on a sandwich has persisted in the decades following her death. In fact Elliot had lost 80 pounds (36 kg) in the eight months before her death by fasting four days a week. Her fatal heart attack was most likely related to this extreme weightloss measure.
Tributes and other popular culture references
The song "Mama, I Remember You Now" by the Swedish artist Marit Bergman is a tribute to Elliot. Mama Cass Elliot 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 her plays a role in the life of one character.
Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers cited The Mamas & the Papas, and especially Elliot as an influence, in an interview for Rolling Stone, saying, "There have been times when I've been very down and out in my life, and the sound of her voice has sort of given me a reason to want to carry on." Boy George and k.d. lang also cited Elliot as an influence. George described her as "the greatest white female singer ever." Beth Ditto, singer of the band Gossip, named Elliot both as music and fashion inspiration, saying, "I really wanted to sound like Mama Cass growing up."
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.
Elliot is mentioned as one of the upcoming concert acts in the Stephen King short story "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," which concerns a couple who wander into a small town inhabited by dead rock and roll legends.
Donovan's song "The Fat Angel" is a heartfelt tribute to Cass Elliot.
Since her death, Elliot and the circumstances surrounding her death have been the butt of numerous 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), "Weird Al" Yankovic, Robin Williams, and others.
Industrial musician Foetus mentions that he is the one that "gave the sandwich to Mama Cass" in the song "Throne of Agony."
The Big Three
The Mamas and the Papas
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