Behind the Band Name: The Mamas & The Papas

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Of all the sun-soaked grooves that were coming out of California in the ’60s, those made by The Mamas & The Papas are some of the most influential.

With a mix of male and female members—John Phillips, Michelle Gilliam Phillips, Cass Elliot, and Denny Doherty—they were able to stand out from the rest of the Laurel Canyon crowd. Their buoyant harmonies, arrangements, and sharp songwriting skills led to a steady, albeit short, run atop the folk-pop charts.

How did the name The Mamas & The Papas come to be? Below, we’re going through the foursome’s rocky story of infidelity and unrequited love that underscored their seemingly innocuous moniker. Let’s dig in.

California Dreamin’

The band went through some major ups and downs before landing on the line-up that would become The Mamas & the Papas. Phillips and Gilliam were married in the early ’60s. After forming a group called the New Journeymen, the duo needed a tenor to round out their sound—enter Doherty. Two became three and the New Journeymen garnered a healthy amount of fame themselves playing gigs around the country.

They eventually connected with Doherty’s former bandmate Cass Elliot and decided to embark on an LSD-fueled trip to the Virgin Islands to foster creativity amongst the group. It was on this trip that everything started to get a little hazy for the group as they became entangled in a love quadrangle.

Doherty once recalled, “Cass wanted me, I wanted Michelle, John wanted Michelle, Michelle wanted me, she wanted her freedom…”

Despite becoming inseparable from the other members of the group, Elliot still wasn’t brought into the fold of the band. Philips claimed she didn’t have the right look and couldn’t hit the notes they needed. After mysteriously gaining an “extra note,” Elliot was finally made an official “Mama,” securing the enduring line-up of the group.

Behind the Band Name

The name has a very simple origin. Soon after gaining an audition with renowned record producer Lou Adler, Elliot was watching an interview with the Hells Angels who claimed “we call our women mamas.” Elliot then screamed at the TV, “well, we got mamas in our group as we got papas.” Philips was immediately drawn to the name and used it as the moniker for their first single “California Dreamin’.”

Despite their name, it was anything but domestic bliss within the group. After scoring a number of top-10 hits and becoming household names, their personal relationships with one another began to get in the way of their career.

Michelle and Doherty had an affair behind Philips’ back, deteriorating all four of their relationships in some way. They continued growing their popularity, releasing more music while things were falling apart behind the scenes. In the vein of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Philips wrote songs about the affair that his wife and Doherty would have to sing on stage every night.

The group split up in 1968. Each of the members forayed out into solo careers to varying levels of success. They briefly reunited as a tribute to Elliot who died of heart failure in 1974.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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