The Mamas & The Papas' (Im)perfect Harmony

Today’s blog is about The Mamas & The Papas, that powerhouse of a vocal quartet. Though I’ve been a big fan of the group for decades, I’ve never been able to properly put into words what their music means to me. I’ve decided to give it another try, though, because I recently learned some details about the foursome that helped me understand why their songs have always sounded so good. My story begins back in the 1960s.


I’ve got two childhood memories of The Mamas & The Papas. First, I remember watching my older sister listening to one of their albums. She was home from college and I was just entering my teens, so I looked to her for guidance on this whole growing up thing. On that day, sitting cross-legged on her bed, my sister was singing with the group, harmonizing with them. She sounded happy.

Hearing my sister’s vocal pleasure would have been new for me since music was rarely played in our home. Any sound traveling from room to room was more apt to have been my parents arguing, which they often did. (Later in life, when I asked them why they fought so much, they assured me they weren’t arguing; they were just discussing.) Added to that family tension was the confusion that I kept bottled up inside me, frightened by my emerging attraction to other boys. So when I saw my sister happily singing along with The Mamas & The Papas, I wanted to feel it too.

My second memory of the group was seeing them on The Ed Sullivan Show, which our family watched together. If a rock band was on, Dad would have some commentary: Send them back to England! he suggested for the Beatles. When The Mamas & The Papas appeared on Ed’s show they looked like they were having a heck of a good time, especially Mama Cass. Dad’s opinion? They’re all on drugs. Maybe he was right, but long after seeing them, I remembered the fun they had harmonizing with one another. Here’s a glimpse of that performance: The Mamas & Papas on Ed Sullivan

Harmony wasn’t what most groups were offering back in the ‘60s. Many successful bands were rewriting the definition of popular music by amping up their guitars and adding psychedelics. The Mamas & The Papas, however, had perfected how to sweetly blend their voices. When the four members of the group—John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot—layered their voices just right, they created, as music reviewers nicknamed it, “the fifth voice”: a pleasing sound that couldn’t have been created by only one person.

The Mamas & The Papas hadn’t cornered the market on harmonizing. There were other groups whose combined voices produced beautiful music. Crosby, Stills & Nash comes to mind; the Beach Boys, the Vogues and the Association, too. I loved all that harmony, because, to me, it sounded like peace. Long before fully understanding why a peaceful life was so vital to me, The Mamas & The Papas were how I wanted the world to sound. So imagine my surprise when, decades after first falling in love with their blended voices, I learned that their world was anything but harmonious.

Papa John was the group’s leader and chief songwriter. He composed most of the group’s hits, using what was happening in his world as inspiration. During the years the group was popular (1965-68), John’s world was The Mamas & The Papas and I can summarize their intense closeness in one sentence: Though John was married to Michelle, she was in love with Denny, who pined for her in return, while Cass carried a major torch for him. That entanglement of emotions created a messy discord, which showed up in the lyrics of the songs they harmonized so beautifully on. For example, “Look Through My Window”

We both knew people sometimes change
and lovers sometimes rearrange;
And nothing's quite as sure as change…

On “Got a Feeling” John and Denny co-wrote the lyrics, giving us a look at their inner struggles with the group’s four-way love affair. John starts it off:

Got a feelin' that I'm wasting time on you babe;
Got a feelin' that you've been untrue.
I got a feelin' that you're stealin'
all the love I thought I was giving to you.

Denny weighs in on the sticky situation:

Got a feelin' that you're playing some game with me, babe.
Got a feelin' that you just can't see.
If you're entertaining any thought that you're gaining
by causing me all of this pain and making me blue
the joke's on you…

The group’s most famous autobiographical song, “Creeque Alley,” summed up their rocky journey to find love in a couple lines:

Make up, break up, everything is shake up
Guess it had to be that way…

Virtually everything written by John (and an occasional group member) rose from the ashes of The Mama & The Papas’ dysfunctional group dynamics. All that turbulence made for some great music, but it tore the group apart. John and Michelle divorced, Denny moved to Canada, and Cass rode her soaring contralto to a short-lived, but successful, solo career. Fifty years later, three of the four are dead (Michelle is still with us), putting to rest any remnants of their struggles with love and life.

What we still have, though, is the recordings of their unified voices. Every time my world spins out of control, every time the noise gets to be too much, I play some Mamas & Papas. Hearing those four bruised souls harmonizing always works like a salve, like a much-needed lesson in how to find peace in a chaotic world.


Is there a group or duo who brings some harmony to your life? Let me know in the Comments section below.