1960s Siren Baltimore's Cass Elliot spoke to a generation with her music, and now her voice is being heard again.

May 04, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Clarifications to the Legend of Mama Cass Elliot:

No. 1. Mama Cass Elliot did not die choking on a ham sandwich.

No. 2. Mama Cass Elliot was hit on the head by a pipe, but it did not have the effect, as the Mamas and Papas repeated ad infinitum, of expanding her vocal range.

No. 3. When Mama Cass Elliot was a sophomore, she didn't plan to go to Swarthmore, as the lyrics to "Creeque Alley" claim. Goucher was a more likely choice, but it didn't rhyme.

No. 4. Mama Cass Elliot's daughter was not immaculately conceived as Mama Cass Elliot announced.

No. 5. Mama Cass Elliot was her stage name, but she hated -- hated -- being called Mama Cass.

John and Michie were gettin' kind of itchie just to leave the folk music behind;

Zol and Denny, workin' for a penny, tryin' to get a fish on the line *

Well before Monterey, the Summer of Love and "California Dreamin'," Denny Doherty stood outside a Greenwich Village club wondering who could belt out a torch song so forcefully that he could hear every note, every inflection, out on Bleeker Street.

He peered through the window. Onstage was a squat, bulbous young woman in a blue taffeta gown with dark hair sculpted high on her head. The look was comical; her singing was not. So powerful was her contralto, so achingly heartfelt, that her two male accompanists might as well have been mutes. You couldn't mistake the joy in her face.

As Doherty stared at her, he gradually noticed that she was watching him, too. And he thought he detected something mirthful in her expression, as though she were thinking, "It's not every day you come across a 300-pound ingenue, is it?"

He would never forget that night, the first time he laid eyes on Cass Elliot.

Doherty made at least as strong an impression on her. She fell hard, which she first confessed to him on a rooftop in Gramercy Park while the theme from "Peyton Place" played on a portable record player. That unrequited romance would be the sorrow of Cass Elliot's improbable, 32-year-long dalliance on this planet. It would also have consequences for the listening pleasure of the English-speaking world and beyond.

That would be later, though, when Denny and Cass were the most distinctive voices of the Mamas and the Papas, one of the seminal American pop bands toward the end of rock and roll's childhood years.

Cass, an Earth Mother in a muumuu, was the group's central personality, its sassy, glittering show-woman. Young men may have lusted after the pouty beauty of Michelle Phillips, but it was screams of "Mama Cass" that resounded from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl.

"Cass, I love you," they'd call.

"Dynamite," she'd vamp. "Where're you staying?"

The group's harmonizing embodied the laid-back, self-absorbed portion of the '60s, the time before anger crowded out much of everything else. The group thrived during the 10 minutes or so when you could say, "Groovy, man," without being a perfect fool; a period when sex, drugs, and rock and roll were a lifestyle, not a cliche. Certainly it was the lifestyle of the Mamas and the Papas.

All of it was something of a canard -- Flower Power, hippiedom, the Youth Culture. Love and self-realization were as tricky during the '60s as any other time, something Cass Elliot could attest to, had she lived.

If you've been paying close attention, you are aware of Cass Elliot's presence among us again 23 years after her death in a London hotel room. A covered version of her "Dream a Little Dream" is now getting air time, and a remixed "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is popular in Los Angeles and New York dance clubs. Her singing, brimming with an optimism and self-acceptance she never fully embraced herself, is the soundtrack of the recent movie "Beautiful Thing." Denny Doherty has produced a play about her. Michelle Phillips has a screenplay in the works.

And this spring, MCA, after the success of its 1991 Mamas and Papas collection, released a Cass Elliot CD containing 16 titles. Its co-producer: Cass' daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell. Its first cut: "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore."

Hearing that voice again conjures an image to smile at, a bold, bawdy cushion of a woman. But there's a wistfulness in her singing, too. For all the adulation, celebrity and riches, Cass Elliot remained "this fat kid from Baltimore."

In the coffeehouse Sebastian sat, and after every number they passed the hat

She didn't begin as Mama Cass, or as Cass Elliot for that matter. Once she was Ellen Naomi, Bess and Philip Cohen's oldest child, who dreamed a little dream of one day being Mary Martin or perhaps Ethel Merman on the Broadway stage. Little did she know she was destined for a far more original role as one of the first made-for-rock female personas.

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