Elliot in February 1972
Ellen Naomi Cohen
September 19, 1941
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
|Died||July 29, 1974 (aged 32)|
Mayfair, London, England
|Resting place||Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery|
|Other names||Mama Cass|
(m. 1963; annulled 1968)
Donald von Wiedenman
(m. 1971; div. 1971)
|Children||Owen Vanessa Elliot|
|Relatives||Leah Kunkel (sister)|
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.
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 birth.
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 Alley").
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 Winkin', Blinkin', 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 Eric Weissberg (who became famous eight years later for performing "Dueling Banjos" on the soundtrack for Deliverance (1972)).
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 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 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
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 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 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 success. She is best remembered for her vocals on the group's hits "California Dreamin'", "Monday, Monday", "Words of Love", and 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 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. Their final album was released in 1971.
After the breakup of the Mamas and 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 earlier that year on the album The Papas & the Mamas Presented By The Mamas and the Papas.
London hotel theft and court case
In 1967, while staying in London, Elliot was prosecuted for stealing bed linen from an apartment where she had been staying on an earlier visit. She denied responsibility and the case was brought before the West London magistrates' court, where the charges against her were dismissed in the absence of any evidence. The band had been forced to cancel concerts as a result of the incident. On a return visit to London, Elliot admitted to the audience at the London Palladium that she had taken two sheets, saying "I liked 'em so I took 'em". She said she had kept quiet because of the way she had been treated in police custody.
Las Vegas show
In October 1968, Elliot made her live solo debut headlining in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, scheduled for a three-week engagement at $40,000 per week (equivalent to $300,000 in 2019) with two shows per night. She went on a six-month crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. According to Elliot, the weight loss led to a stomach ulcer and throat problems, which she treated by drinking milk and cream—and regaining 50 pounds in the process.
She was confined to her bed for three weeks before the first performance, and the musical director, band, and production supervisor attempted to put together a show in her absence. She was scheduled to rehearse for a full three days before the show opened, but she managed to get through only part of one run-through with the band before saying that she was losing her voice. She skipped the remainder of rehearsals and drank tea and lemon, hoping to recover and pull herself together for opening night.
An audience of 950 people filled the Circus Maximus theater at Caesar's Palace on the evening of Wednesday October 16, including Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Liza Minnelli, and Mia Farrow had sent flowers to Elliot's dressing room. However, backstage she had developed a raging fever. Friends urged her manager to cancel the show, but she felt that it was too important and insisted on performing. Sick and having barely rehearsed, she began to fall apart during the course of her first performance; her voice was weak and barely audible, and the large crowd was unsympathetic, despite the celebrity well-wishers. At the end of the show, Elliot returned to the stage to apologize to the audience; "This is the first night, and it will get better," she said. She then sang "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and left the stage as the audience applauded half-heartedly. She returned later that night to perform the second show, but her voice was worse, and many of the audience noisily walked out.
Reviews were harsh. Esquire magazine called the show "Sink Along with Cass" and "a disaster" that was "heroic in proportion, epic in scope". The Los Angeles Free Press called it "an embarrassing drag", while Newsweek compared it to the Titanic disaster: "Like some great ocean liner embarking on an ill-fated maiden voyage, Mama Cass slid down the waves and sank to the bottom." The show closed after only one night, and Elliot flew back to Los Angeles for what was described as "a tonsillectomy".
Within hours of the end of Elliot's Las Vegas concert, rumors began to spread that she had been taking drugs during the weeks leading up to it. Eddi Fiegel wrote in the biography Dream a Little Dream of Me that Elliot later admitted to a boyfriend that she had shot heroin immediately before going on stage. Embarrassed by the debacle, Elliot plunged into a deep depression.
David Crosby published a memoir in 1988, saying the following about his use of heroin with Elliot:
It was always the bad drug, always the worst. It got a little more open around the time that Cass and I were doing it, but it wasn't something you told people [about]. It wasn't anything you bragged about, you know. ... Me and Cass Elliot were closet junk takers and used to get loaded with each other a lot. We loved London because there was pharmaceutical heroin available in drugstores [there]. ... Government [of the United Kingdom] dope, in these injectable tablets that you crushed and dissolved in order to shoot them. Me and Cass used to just mash them up and snort the powder. ... Cass took lots of pills, usually from the opiate family: Dilaudid, Demerol, Percodan, downers of all sorts, and we did a lot of coke together.
Elliot appeared in two television variety specials: The Mama Cass Television Program (ABC, 1969) and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (CBS, 1973). She was a regular guest on TV talk shows and variety shows in the early 1970s, including 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. She guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared as a guest on the show 13 other times. She also appeared on and co-hosted The Music Scene on ABC and was featured on the first The Midnight Special on NBC.
She performed the title song "The Good Times Are Comin'" during the opening sequence of the 1970 film Monte Walsh, starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. In 1972, she made three appearances on the variety series The Julie Andrews Hour. Her final appearance on the show was the Christmas installment that aired on Wednesday, December 20, 1972. In December 1978, four years after Elliot's death, the episode was rebroadcast on syndicated stations as a Christmas special called Merry Christmas With Love, Julie. However, all of Elliot's solos were deleted from the syndicated prints. In 2009, a complete videotape of The Julie Andrews Hour Christmas Show was donated to The Paley Center For Media in New York, with all of Elliot's numbers intact.
Throughout the early 1970s, Elliot continued her acting career, as well. She had a featured role in the movie Pufnstuf (1970) 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.
In 1973, Elliot hired as her manager Allan Carr, who was also managing the careers of Tony Curtis, Ann-Margret, and Peter Sellers. Carr felt Elliot needed to leave pop and rock music altogether and head into the cabaret circuit, so a show was put together comprising old standards along with a few new songs written for her by friends. The act included Elliot and two male singers who served as backup singers and sidekicks during the musical numbers. The title of the show was Don't Call Me Mama Anymore, named after one of the songs written by Elliot's friend Earle Brown. The song was born out of Elliot's frustration with being identified as "Mama Cass".
The show debuted in Pittsburgh on February 9, 1973. Elliot felt ready to tackle Las Vegas once again and premiered at the Flamingo. This time, she received rave reviews. The Las Vegas Sun wrote, "Cass Elliot, making a strong point that she is no longer Mama Cass, has a good act serving notice that she is here to stay. The audience was with her all the way... no empty seats anywhere." She then took her act to higher-echelon casinos and swankier nightclubs in cities throughout the country.
Elliot was married twice, the first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her group mate in the Big 3 and the Mugwumps. This was reportedly a platonic arrangement to assist him in avoiding being drafted during the Vietnam War; the marriage reportedly was never consummated and was annulled in 1968. In 1971, Elliot married journalist Donald von Wiedenman, heir to a Bavarian barony. Their marriage ended in divorce after a few months.
Elliot gave birth to 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. When Chuck Day died in 2008, it was revealed that he was Owen's father. After Elliot's death, her younger sister, Leah Kunkel (then married to Los Angeles-based session drummer Russ Kunkel), received custody of Owen, then seven years old, and raised her along with her own son, Nathaniel. Owen grew up to become a singer as well and toured with Beach Boys member Al Jardine.
Loss of material
On April 22, 1974, Elliot collapsed in the Burbank, California television studio of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson immediately before her scheduled appearance on the show. She was treated at a hospital and released, then dismissed the incident as simple exhaustion in interviews such as her May 7 appearance on The Tonight Show and the American television talk show The Mike Douglas Show. Her appearance on that episode of The Mike Douglas Show turned out to be her last for television.
In July 1974, Elliot performed two weeks of concerts as a solo performer at the London Palladium. Many claimed that all of these shows were sold out, but she was often playing to a less-than-full house after the earliest dates. She made an international call to Michelle Phillips after the final concert on July 28. Phillips said later that Elliot sounded elated that she had received standing ovations each night.
It was 1974 and Cass was ecstatic that she was going to London to play The Palladium. After she had played two nights there, she called crying with joy telling me that she had got a standing ovation both nights and she had sold out both nights, she was just as happy as I'd ever seen her or heard her. The following day I was having lunch at Warner Brothers and a friend of mine came running out with the terrible news that Cass had died in her sleep of a heart attack, it was just unbelievable that she died on the night that she had called me and been so happy and so fulfilled, it was wonderful for her that she had made that leap from Mama Cass to Cass Elliot, and I do know this one thing—Cass Elliot died a very happy woman.— Michelle Phillips, 2005
Though it has been widely speculated that Elliot retired for the evening following that telephone conversation with Phillips, Debbie Reynolds claimed in her 2013 book Unsinkable: A Memoir that she and her children, Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher, saw Elliot at a party that night at the London home of Mick Jagger. Reynolds noted that Elliot was alone when she left.
That night, Elliot, age 32, died in her sleep at the London flat where she was staying. According to forensic pathologist Keith Simpson, who conducted her autopsy, her death was due to heart failure. A drug screen that was part of the forensic autopsy revealed there were no drugs in her system. Elliot died in Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place (later Curzon Square), Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London, which was on loan from singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. Four years later, The Who's drummer Keith Moon died in the same room, also aged 32 years.
An oft-repeated urban legend is that Elliot choked to death on a ham sandwich. The story spread soon after the discovery of her body and was based on speculation in the initial media coverage. A 2014 article in Haaretz identified the person who started the false rumor as follows: "Unfortunately, the first doctor [in London] who examined her speculated to the press about the cause of death, and that’s the version that stuck." An autopsy had not been performed when the physician was quoted, and London police told reporters that a partially eaten sandwich found in her room might have been relevant to the cause of death. When Dr. Keith Simpson performed the autopsy, he determined that Elliot had died of heart failure, and that no food was present in her windpipe, yet the false story has persisted ever since.
Tributes and other popular culture references
Films and plays
The British play and film Beautiful Thing feature her recordings, and one character reflects on her memories of Elliot. Elliot was the subject of a 2004 stage production in Dublin, The Songs of Mama Cass, with Kristin Kapelli performing main vocals.
She is mentioned as the host of a party in the Elton John biopic, Rocketman. The party occurs after Elton's first performance at the Troubador in Los Angeles. She is portrayed by Rachel Redleaf in the 2019 film Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood.
The song "Mama, I Remember You Now" by the Swedish artist Marit Bergman is a tribute to Elliot.
The Frank Zappa song "We're Turning Again" references the urban legend of Cass choking to death. "We can visit Big Mama, we can whap her on the back, while she eats her sandwich!"
TISM song '(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River' cites her conjectured cause of death among a catalogue of other famous "bad ends" from the history of popular music: "Mama Cass’ sandwich, I ate the same!".
Elliot's recording of "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is featured prominently in several episodes of seasons 2 and 3 of Lost as well as season 8, episodes 2 and 9 of Dexter (the later one also uses the title as the episode's title). It was also featured in ABC’s “The Middle” when Sue Heck graduates from High School. Her recording of "It's Getting Better" is featured in a season 4 episode of Lost. She provided the voice for her appearance on the 1973 episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, "The Haunted Candy Factory." She also appeared on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated in the episodes "The Secret Serum", "Pawn of Shadows" and "Dance of the Undead" as a Crystal Cove citizen.
The Big 3
- 1965: The Mugwumps
The Mamas and the Papas
- 1966: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
- 1966: The Mamas & the Papas
- 1967: The Mamas and the Papas Deliver
- 1968: The Papas & The Mamas
- 1970: Monterey Pop Festival (Live) (recorded in 1967)
- 1971: People Like Us
|Year||Album||Chart Performance (US)||Notes|
|1968||Dream a Little Dream||#87|
|1969||Bubblegum, Lemonade, and... Something for Mama||#91|
|1969||Make Your Own Kind of Music||#169||This was a reissue of Bubblegum, Lemonade - with the hit title song added.|
|1970||Mama's Big Ones||#194|
|1971||Dave Mason & Cass Elliot||#49||with Dave Mason|
|1972||The Road Is No Place for a Lady||-|
|1973||Don't Call Me Mama Anymore||-||Recorded Live|
"-" indicates the album did not chart or was not released in that territory.
- 1970: Pufnstuf (soundtrack with Mama Cass)
- 1996: Beautiful Thing (soundtrack with Mama Cass and the Mamas and the Papas)
|1968||"Dream a Little Dream of Me"
b/w "Midnight Voyage"
Listed as "Mama Cass with The Mamas & the Papas"
|12||2||7||-||11||13||1||A & B: The Papas & the Mamas |
A: Dream a Little Dream (Cass Elliot album)
b/w "Talkin' to Your Toothbrush"
|67||-||51||-||-||-||94||Dream a Little Dream|
|1969||"It's Getting Better"
b/w "Who's to Blame"
|30||13||31||7||8||3||53||Bubblegum, Lemonade, and... Something for Mama|
|"Move in a Little Closer, Baby"
b/w "All for Me" (non-album track)
|"Make Your Own Kind of Music"
b/w "Lady Love"
|36||6||20||7||-||-||72||Make Your Own Kind of Music|
|1970||"New World Coming"
b/w "Blow Me a Kiss" (from Make Your Own Kind of Music)
|42||4||22||4||-||-||-||Mama's Big Ones|
|"A Song That Never Comes"
b/w "I Can Dream, Can't I" (from Make Your Own Kind Of Music)
|"The Good Times Are Coming"
b/w "Welcome to the World" (from Make Your Own Kind Of Music)
|"Don't Let the Good Life Pass You By"
b/w "A Song That Never Comes"
|1971||"Something to Make You Happy"
b/w "Next to You"
Both sides with Dave Mason
|-||-||-||-||-||-||-||Dave Mason & Cass Elliot|
|"Too Much Truth, Too Much Love"
b/w "Walk to the Point"
Both sides with Dave Mason
|1972||"Baby I'm Yours"
b/w "Cherries Jubilee"
b/w "When It Doesn't Work Out"
|"(If You're Gonna) Break Another Heart"
b/w "Disney Girls" (from Cass Elliot)
|-||-||-||-||54||-||-||The Road Is No Place for a Lady|
|"Does Anybody Love You"
b/w "The Road Is No Place for a Lady"
|1973||"I Think A Lot About You"
b/w "Listen to the World" (non-album track)
|-||-||-||-||-||-||-||Don't Call Me Mama Anymore|
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