A Rockapaedia Obituary

Mama Cass Elliot

Group: The Mamas & Papas

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Mama Cass died aged thirty-two on 29th July 1974 in a photo of Mama Cassloaned flat in Mayfair, London, U.K. She had called fellow Mama, Michelle Phillips after her final concert on the day before, elated that she had received standing ovations each night. She then retired for the evening and died in her sleep. According to the forensic pathologist conducting her autopsy, her death was due to "heart failure due to fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity". A drug screen that was part of the forensic autopsy further showed no drugs in her system. Mama Cass was buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Mama Cass Elliott was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19th 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., the daughter of Philip Cohen and his wife Bess. Both her parents were the children of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire. Cass Elliot's family was subject to significant financial stresses and uncertainties during her childhood years. Her father, involved in several business ventures throughout his life, ultimately succeeded through the development of a lunch wagon business in Baltimore, providing meals to construction workers. Her mother was a trained nurse. Cass Elliot had a brother Joseph and a younger sister Leah, professionally known as Leah Kunkel, who also became a singer and recording artist. Cass Elliot's early life was spent with her family in Alexandria, Virginia, before the family moved to Baltimore, when Cass was fifteen.
Cass Elliot adopted the name "Cass" in high school, possibly borrowing it from actress Peggy Cass, as Denny Doherty told it. She assumed the surname Elliot some time later, in memory of a friend who had died. While in Alexandria, Virginia, Mama Cass attended George Washington High School, which Jim Morrison of The Doors also attended. When Mama Cass's family returned to Baltimore, she attended Forest Park High School.
While attending Forest Park High School, Cass became interested in acting. She won a small part in the play 'The Boy Friend', a summer stock production at the Hilltop Theatre in Owings Mills, Maryland. She left high school shortly before graduation and moved to New York City to further her acting career.
After leaving high school to pursue an entertainment career in New York, Mama Cass toured in the musical 'The Music Man'. Cass would sometimes sing while working as a cloakroom attendant at The Showplace in Greenwich Village, but she didn't pursue a singing career until she moved to the Washington, D.C. area to attend American University.
America's folk music scene was on the rise when Mama Cass 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 3. Mama Cass's first recording with The Big 3 was "Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod", released by FM Records in 1963. In 1964, the group appeared on an "open mic" night at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, billed as "Cass Elliot and the Big 3", followed onstage by folk singer Jim Fosso and bluegrass banjoist Eric Weissberg, who became famous eight years later for performing "Dueling Banjos" on the soundtrack for 'Deliverance'.
Tim Rose left The Big 3 in 1964, and Mama Cass and Hendricks teamed with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty to form The Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Mama Cass performed as a solo act for a while. In the meantime, Yanovsky and John Sebastian co-founded The Lovin' Spoonful, while Doherty joined The New Journeymen, a group that also included John Phillips and his wife Michelle. In 1965, Doherty persuaded Phillips that Mama Cass should join the group, which she did while she and the group members were vacationing in the Virgin Islands.
A popular legend about Cass Elliot is that her vocal range was improved by three notes after she was hit on the head by some copper tubing while walking through a construction site behind the bar where The New Journeymen were playing in the Virgin Islands. Cass confirmed the story in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, saying,
"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."
Cass Elliot was known for her sense of humor and optimism, and was considered by some to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her powerful, distinctive voice was a major factor in their success. She is best remembered for her vocals on the group's hits "California Dreamin'", "Monday, Monday", "Words of Love", and 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. Cass Elliot's version is noteworthy for its contemplative pace, whereas almost all earlier recordings of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (including one by Nat King Cole and another by Ozzie Nelson) had been up-tempo versions—the song having been written in 1931 as a dance tune.
The Mamas & the Papas continued to record to meet the terms of their record contract. Their final album was released in 1971.
After the breakup of The Mamas & the Papas, Cass Elliot embarked on a solo singing career. Her most successful recording during this period was 1968's "Dream a Little Dream of Me" from her solo album of the same name, released by Dunhill Records, though it had originally been released earlier that year on the album 'The Papas & the Mamas Presented By The Mamas and the Papas'.
In October 1968, Cass Elliot made her live solo debut headlining in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, scheduled for a three-week engagement at $40,000 per week, with two shows per night. Cass went on a six-month long crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. According to Elliot, the weight loss led to a stomach ulcer and throat problems, which she treated by drinking milk and cream (and regaining 50 pounds in the process).
A nervous Cass Elliot was confined to her bed for three weeks before the first performance, as the musical director, band, and production supervisor attempted to put together a show in her absence. She was scheduled to rehearse for a full three days before the show opened, but she managed to get through only part of one run-through with the band before saying that she was losing her voice. She skipped the remainder of rehearsals and drank tea and lemon, hoping to recover and pull herself together for opening night.
An audience of 950 people filled the Circus Maximus theatre at Caesars Palace on the evening of Wednesday October 16, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Jimi Hendrix. Joan Baez, Liza Minnelli, and Mia Farrow had sent flowers to Elliot's dressing room. But backstage, a shivering Elliot had developed a raging fever. Friends urged her manager to cancel the show, but she felt it was too important and insisted on performing. Sick and having barely rehearsed, Elliot began to fall apart during the course of her first performance: her voice was weak and barely audible, and the large crowd was unsympathetic, despite the celebrity well-wishers. At the end of the show, Cass returned to the stage to apologize to the audience, stating, "This is the first night, and it will get better". She then sang "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and left the stage as the audience applauded half-heartedly. She returned later that night to perform the second show, but her voice was worse, and many of the audience noisily walked out.
Reviews were harsh. Esquire magazine called the show "a disaster" that was "heroic in proportion, epic in scope." The Los Angeles Free Press called the show "an embarrassing drag." Newsweek compared the show to the Titanic disaster: "Like some great ocean liner embarking on an ill-fated maiden voyage, Mama Cass slid down the ways and sank to the bottom." The show closed after only one night, and Elliot flew back to Los Angeles for what was described as "a tonsillectomy."
Within hours of the end of Cass Elliot's Las Vegas concert, rumors began to spread that she had been taking drugs during the weeks leading up to it. Eddi Fiegel wrote in the biography Dream a Little Dream of Me that Cass later admitted to a boyfriend that she had shot heroin immediately before going on stage. Embarrassed by the debacle, Cass Elliot plunged into a deep depression.
Cass appeared in two television variety specials: The Mama Cass Television Show (ABC, 1969) and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (CBS, 1973). She was a regular guest on TV talk shows and variety shows in the early 1970s, including The Mike Douglas Show, The Andy Williams Show, Hollywood Squares, The Johnny Cash Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Carol Burnett Show, and was a guest panelist for a week on the game show Match Game '73. She guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared as a guest on the show 13 other times. She also appeared on and co-hosted The Music Scene on ABC and was featured on the first The Midnight Special on NBC.
Cass performed the title song "The Good Times Are Comin'" during the opening sequence of the 1970 film Monte Walsh, starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. In 1972, she made three appearances on the variety series The Julie Andrews Hour. Her final appearance on the show was the Christmas installment that aired on Wednesday, December 20, 1972.
In 1973, Cass performed in Saga of Sonora, a TV music-comedy-western special with 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 advertisements.
Throughout the early 1970s, Cass Elliot continued her acting career, as well. She had a featured role in the movie Pufnstuf (1970) and made guest appearapicture of Mama Cassnces on TV's The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Young Dr. Kildare, Love, American Style, and The Red Skelton Show, among others.
In 1973, Cass Elliot hired as her manager Allan Carr, who was also managing the careers of Tony Curtis, Ann-Margret, and Peter Sellers. Carr felt Cass needed to leave pop and rock music altogether and head into the cabaret circuit, so a show was put together comprising old standards along with a few new songs written for her by friends. The act included Cass and two male singers who served as backing singers and sidekicks during the musical numbers. The title of the show was 'Don't Call Me Mama Anymore', named after one of the songs written by Elliot's friend Earle Brown. The song was born out of Cass's frustration with being identified as "Mama Cass".
The show debuted in Pittsburgh on February 9th 1973. Cass felt ready to tackle Las Vegas once again and premiered at the Flamingo. This time, she received rave reviews. The Las Vegas Sun wrote, "Cass Elliot, making a strong point that she is no longer Mama Cass, has a good act serving notice that she is here to stay. The audience was with her all the way... no empty seats anywhere." She then took her act to higher-echelon casinos and swankier nightclubs in cities throughout the country.
Cass was married twice, the first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her groupmate in The Big 3 and The Mugwumps. This was reportedly a platonic arrangement to assist him in avoiding being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War; the marriage reportedly was never consummated and was annulled in 1968. In 1971, Elliot married journalist Donald von Wiedenman, heir to a Bavarian barony. Their marriage ended in divorce after a few months.
Cass gave birth to 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. After Cass Elliot's death, her younger sister, Leah Kunkel (then married to Los Angeles-based session drummer Russ Kunkel), received custody of Owen, then seven years old, and raised her along with her own son, Nathaniel. Owen grew up to become a singer as well and toured with Beach Boys member Al Jardine.
On April 22nd 1974, Cass collapsed before an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She played it off in interviews as nothing more than exhaustion. Cass performed two weeks of concerts at the London Palladium later that summer, at the height of her solo career.

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song: 'It's Getting Better' by Mama Cass.