Ellen Naomi Cohen
September 19, 1941
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
|Died||July 29, 1974 (aged 32)|
|Resting place||Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles|
|Other names||Mama Cass, the Queen of Laurel Canyon|
|Occupation(s)||Singer, actress, producer|
|Relatives||Leah Kunkel (sister)|
Ellen Naomi Cohen (September 19, 1941 – July 29, 1974), known professionally as Cass Elliot, was an American singer and voice actress. She was also known as "Mama Cass", but she reportedly hated the name. She was a member of the singing group the Mamas & the Papas. After the group broke up, Elliot released five solo albums. She received the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary (R&R) Performance for "Monday, Monday" (1967). In 1998, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her work with the Mamas & the Papas.
Early life and education
Ellen Naomi Cohen was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 19, 1941, the daughter of Philip (died 1962) and Bess Cohen (née Levine; 1915–1994). 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, ultimately succeeded through the development of a lunch wagon in Baltimore that 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, and 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").
1962–1964: Early career
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 sometimes sang 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, DC 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 "Winken, Blinken, 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.
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 the group members and she 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, 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.
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, because he considered her too fat.
1965–1968: The Mamas and the Papas
With two female members, the New Journeymen needed a new name, the Mamas & the Papas. The group lasted from 1965 to 1968. According to Doherty, Elliot had the inspiration for the band's new name; as written on his website. 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.
"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."
— Denny Doherty
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 string of hits including: "California Dreamin'", "Monday, Monday", and "Words of Love". She also performed the solo "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (credited on the label of the single as 'Featuring Mama Cass with the Mamas and the Papas'), 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 many 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 until 1971.
1968–1973: Solo career
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.
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 with two shows per night. According to Elliot, she went on a six-month crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. However, she attributed a stomach ulcer and throat problems to her severe regimen, which she treated by drinking milk and cream—regaining 50 pounds in the process.
She was confined to her bed for three weeks before the first performance while 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, Liza Minnelli, and Mia Farrow, who had sent flowers to Elliot's dressing room, but 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".
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 Ray Stevens 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 titled 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.
In 1973, Elliot performed in Saga of Sonora, a TV music-comedy-Western special with 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 advertisements. 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 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.
Marriages and family
Elliot was married twice, the first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her group mate in the Big 3 and the Mugwumps. It was a marriage of convenience to assist him in avoiding being drafted during the Vietnam War; the marriage never was 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 a daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot, on April 26, 1967. Owen also grew up to become a singer and toured with Beach Boys member Al Jardine. Elliot never publicly identified the father, but many years later, Michelle Phillips helped Owen locate her biological father, Chuck Day. His paternity was not publicly revealed until his 2008 death. After Elliot's death, her younger sister, Leah Kunkel (then married to Los Angeles-based session drummer Russ Kunkel), gained custody of seven-year-old Owen and raised her along with her own son, Nathaniel.
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 injected heroin immediately before going on stage. Embarrassed by the debacle, Elliot plunged into a deep depression. David Crosby published a memoir in 1988 saying Elliot and he used opiates, cocaine, and heroin together, preferring to use heroin in London because of its availability there.
1967 legal issue
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 Mamas and the Papas were forced to cancel the upcoming British concerts as a result of the incident, and the band broke up the next year. 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.
Death and funeral
On April 22, 1974, Elliot collapsed in the 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.
She finished two weeks of solo concerts at the London Palladium on Saturday night, July 27, and went on a 24-hour celebration. She first attended the 31st birthday party of Mick Jagger at his home at Tite Street in Chelsea, London. After the party, Elliot went to a brunch in her honor presented by Georgia Brown. While there, according to biographer Eddi Fiegel, Elliot was blowing her nose frequently, coughing and having trouble breathing. Next she attended a cocktail party hosted by American entertainment journalist Jack Martin. She seemed in high spirits but also appeared physically exhausted and sick. Elliot left that party at 8:00 pm on Sunday, July 28, saying she was tired and needed to get some sleep.
Elliot retired to an apartment in Mayfair at Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place (later Curzon Square), Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London, owned by singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson who allowed her to stay there. Several hours after Elliot left Jack Martin's cocktail party, she died in her sleep at age 32. According to Keith Simpson, who conducted her autopsy, she died of a heart attack, and there were no drugs in her system. Four years later, the Who's drummer Keith Moon died in the same bedroom, also aged 32 years.
Awards and nominations
|1967||Grammy Award||Record of the Year||Monday, Monday||Nominated|
|Best Performance By A Vocal Group||Nominated|
|Best Contemporary (R&R) Recording||Nominated|
|Best Contemporary (R&R) Group Performance, Vocal Or Instrumental||Won|
In popular culture
The city of Baltimore dedicated August 15, 1973 as "Cass Elliot Day" in her honor for her homecoming.
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. Elliot was portrayed by Shannon Lee in the Bruce Lee Biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. She was portrayed by Rachel Redleaf in the 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The song "Mama, I Remember You Now" by Swedish artist Marit Bergman is a tribute to Elliot. The Frank Zappa song "We're Turning Again" refers to 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 catalog of other famous "bad ends" from the history of popular music: "Mama Cass' sandwich, I ate the same!". The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Close but No Cigar" also refers to the urban legend, with the narrator being "all choked up like Mama Cass". The Foetus song "The Throne of Agony" makes reference to the urban legend, with JG Thirwell claiming that he was "the one who gave the sandwich to Mama Cass". The Crosby, Stills & Nash Daylight Again video released in 1982 was dedicated to Cass Elliot as was the Crosby, Stills & Nash Greatest Hits album released in 2005.
Elliot's recording of "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is featured prominently in several episodes of seasons two and three of Lost as well as season eight, episodes two and nine 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 and in Netflix's Sex Education when Aimee smashes up an abandoned car. Her recording of "It's Getting Better" is featured in a season-four 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
- 1963: The Big 3
- 1964: Live at the Recording Studio
- 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||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)
- 1971: "The Costume Ball" from Doctor's Wives
- 1996: Beautiful Thing (soundtrack with Mama Cass and the Mamas and the Papas)
|UK||IRE||AUS||US Cash Box Top 100|
|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||10||A & B: The Papas & The Mamas |
A: Dream a Little Dream (Cass Elliot album)
b/w "Talkin' to Your Toothbrush"
|67||-||51||-||-||-||94||74||Dream a Little Dream|
|1969||"It's Getting Better"
b/w "Who's to Blame"
|30||13||31||7||8||3||53||35||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||25||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||-||-||-||30||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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