Cass Elliot (September 19 1941 – July 29 1974), born Ellen Naomi Cohen, was a noted American singer, best remembered as Mama Cass of the pop quartet The Mamas & the Papas. After the group broke up, she had a successful solo career, releasing nine albums. Elliot was found dead in her room in London from an apparent heart attack after two sold-out performances at the Palladium.
She started her acting career with a part in the play The Boy Friend while she was still in school. After dropping out of George Washington High School shortly before graduation, she went to New York City, where she appeared in The Music Man but lost the part of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale to Barbra Streisand in 1962.
While working as a hat check girl at "The Showplace" in Greenwich Village, Elliot would sometimes sing, but it wasn't until she returned to the Washington area, to attend American University, that she began to pursue a singing career. As America's folk music scene was on the rise, 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 Three. Elliot's first recording, Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod, with The Big Three, was released by FM Records in 1963.
When Tim Rose left The Big Three in 1964, Elliot and Hendricks teamed up with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty as The Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Cass performed as a solo act for a while. Yanovsky joined with John Sebastian to co-found The Lovin' Spoonful while Doherty joined The New Journeymen with John Phillips and his wife, Michelle. In 1965, Doherty finally convinced Phillips that Cass should join the group. She did so, officially, while they 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 shortly before joining the group, while they were in the Virgin Islands. Elliot herself confirmed the story; in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 she said,
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.
However, according to people who knew her well, this was not true - Elliot always had a standout singing voice. Her friends said that the pipe story was used as a more politically-correct explanation for why John had kept her out of the group for so long, because the real reason she was not accepted sooner was that John considered her to be too fat.
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 Hell's Angels on this talk 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.
Doherty went on to say that the occasion marked the beginning of his affair with Michelle. Elliot was in love with Doherty, so was displeased when he told her about the affair. Doherty has said that Cass once proposed to him, but that he was so stoned at the time, he could not even respond.
Elliot, known for her sense of humor and optimism, was considered by some to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her warm, distinctive voice was a large factor in their success. She is best remembered for her vocals on the group's Billboard hits "California Dreamin'", "Monday Monday", and "Words of Love", and particularly for the solo "Dream a Little Dream of Me", 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 being a ballad, whereas almost all earlier recordings of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (including one by Nat King Cole) had been quick, up-tempo versions — the song having actually been written in 1931 as a dance tune for the nightclubs of the day.
They continued to record to meet the terms of their record contract until their final album was released in 1971.
She was a regular on TV talk shows and variety shows in the 1970s, including The Julie Andrews Hour, The Mike Douglas Show, The Andy Williams Show, Hollywood Squares, and The Carol Burnett Show. She guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared on that show 13 other times. Elliot also was a guest panelist for a week in late 1973 on the hit game show Match Game '73. She appeared in the 1973 Saga of Sonora, a TV music-comedy-Western special with stars of the day such as 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 fast-food adverts.
Throughout the early 1970s, Elliot continued her acting career as well. She had a featured role in the 1970 movie Pufnstuf and made guest-star acting appearances on TV's The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Young Dr. Kildare, Love, American Style, and The Red Skelton Show, among others.
Elliot gave birth to a daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot, on April 26, 1967. She never publicly identified the father, but many years later, Michelle Phillips helped Owen locate her biological father. Owen grew up to become a singer as well and toured with former Beach Boy Al Jardine.
At the height of her solo career in 1974, Elliot performed two sold-out concerts at the London Palladium. She telephoned Michelle Phillips after the final concert, utterly elated that she had received standing ovations each night. She then retired for the evening, and died in her sleep of a heart attack.
An urban legend arose that Elliot died choking on a ham sandwich. Speaking to the press shortly after her body was discovered, the police noted that a partly eaten sandwich had been found in her room and speculated that she may have choked while eating it. When the coroner's autopsy was performed, no food was found in her trachea and the cause of death was determined to have been heart failure and that she had died in her sleep. But by then, the specious story was already making the rounds and the real cause of death was rarely discussed. Elliot died in the same flat, No.12 at 9 Curzon Place, Mayfair that The Who drummer Keith Moon would die in, a little over four years later. At Elliot's death, her sister, Leah Kunkel, received custody of Cass' daughter Owen, then just seven years old. Kunkel is also a singer and charted in 1984 as a member of the Coyote Sisters on the single "Straight From The Heart (Into Your Life)." Kunkel was interviewed by VH1 in 1997 and discussed her famous sister for the "Mamas & Papas" episode of the network's documentary series Behind The Music.
Since her death, Mama Cass in general, and specifically the circumstances surrounding her death, have been the butt of jokes in comedy routines, movies, and songs, by performers such as Frank Zappa, Adam Sandler, Denis Leary, Mike Myers (in the first Austin Powers movie), TISM, Jack Black, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Robin Williams, Foetus and others.
There also have been tributes to her in the years since her death. The song "Mama, I Remember You Now" by the Swedish artist Marit Bergman is a tribute to Mama Cass. She was the subject of a 2004 stage production in Dublin, The Songs of Mama Cass, with Kristin Kapelli performing main vocals. The Crosby, Stills & Nash Greatest Hits album released in 2005 was dedicated to Cass Elliot. The British film Beautiful Thing heavily features her recordings, and the memory of Cass plays a role in the life of one character.
Elliot's recording of "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is featured prominently in several episodes of seasons 2 and 3 of Lost. Her recording of "It's Getting Better" was also featured in a season 4 episode of Lost.