The 29th of July in 1974 was a sad day for all fans of the Mamas and the Papas and admirers of quality pop in general. That was the date of the untimely death, at the tragically early age of 32, of one of the most-loved characters in 1960s and early 70s pop music, and one of its most distinctive voices. We’re remembering Cass Elliot, forever better known as “Mama” Cass.
The singer from Baltimore, born Ellen Cohen in 1941, started to be known as Cass during high school, and at first thought she might pursue an acting career. She started singing seriously in the early 1960s as a member of the Triumvirate, later the Big 3, who included Tim Rose, later to be celebrated as a singer-songwriter, especially for his recordings of “Hey Joe” and “Morning Dew.”
Various solo and group endeavors later, she teamed up with Denny Doherty, briefly her colleague in the Mugwumps, and John Phillips and his wife Michelle. As they holidayed together in the Virgin Islands, Elliot agreed to join what would become the Mamas and the Papas. Their success over the following years is the stuff of industry legend, as they came to represent a style of urban Californian pop that perfectly complemented the lush sound of the Beach Boys.
The group’s initial run of success was relatively short-lived, and although they recorded to fulfill their record contract, the quartet also pursued their own projects. Elliot released her cover of the 1930s chestnut “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” in the summer of 1968 and saw it become an international hit, followed in the autumn by the Dream A Little Dream album. By then, she had a lucrative booking at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas which ended disastrously when an excessive weight loss program led to negative reviews, illness and depression.
She recovered for 1969’s Bubblegum, Lemonade and…Something for Mama, which included “Getting Better,” a US long-runner and top ten single in the UK, as well as the great ‘Make Your Own Kind Of Music’ and her version of “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” Elliot released the Dave Mason & Cass Elliot album with the Traffic member in 1971, before two more solo projects and a live record.
In July 1974, Cass had just completed a sellout run at the London Palladium when, at her flat in Mayfair, she died in her sleep, of a reported heart attack. In 2005, Cass’ daughter Owen Elliot-Kugell wrote that she thought her mother “would want to be remembered for her voice, which was one of the uniquely special sounds of her time. But it’s more than just her singing voice. I think she would want to be remembered for the voice she raised to improve the world around her.”
As for Mama Cass herself, she told the NME in 1972: “I seem to be one of the very few pure singers around nowadays. I think you’ve got to be better vocally if you’ve got nothing else to offer.”