July 8, 2002
-- It's 1963, and New York City is having a particularly dismal winter, at least as far as Californian Michelle Phillips can tell. She and John Phillips are living together, in their first year of marriage. He's 28, she's just 19. It's John's habit to walk around the apartment at night with his guitar, working out tunes. One morning -- early, before the sun is up -- he wakes Michelle and asks for her help finishing a song.
All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray
I've been for a walk on a winter's day
I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
California dreamin', on such a winter's day.
For Morning Edition
, as part of the Present at the Creation
series, NPR's Susan Stamberg
explores the history of one of pop music's most memorable songs. "California Dreamin'" was about longing for another place, and it left a legacy strong enough to cement a place for its performers, the Mamas and the Papas, in the pantheon of popular music history.
"The words 'California dreamin' kept going through my mind," John Phillips recalled in an interview before his death. "I stared working on some chords for the song. And I went through more chord progressions and things that fit the melancholy of the song."
Michelle remembers waking up to John asking for her help. He didn't like writing alone. In this case, her homesickness had provided the initial inspiration, and after they put their heads together, life in the city informed more of the lyrics. A few days earlier, Michelle says, she had wanted to visit St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I just loved going into churches. And that's where we got the lyric for the second verse."
Stopped in to a church I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray
You know the preacher liked the cold, he knows I'm going to stay
California dreamin', on such a winter's day.
The song wasn't destined for immediate glory. At the time, John and Michelle Phillips were in a folk group called the New Journeymen with banjo player Marshall Brickman (who would later write screenplays -- and win an Academy Award -- with Woody Allen). When Brickman left the group, the couple brought in Denny Doherty, of the Halifax Three and the Mugwumps, to sing with them. Doherty, in turn, introduced the Phillips to Cass Elliot while on a trip to the Virgin Islands. Won over by Elliot's impressive voice, the four bonded and moved to Los Angeles to form the Mamas and the Papas.
The foursome got its first big break when singer Barry McGuire, who was working on an album for Dunhill Records, introduced them to Lou Adler, producer and head of the record company. Adler listened to the group sing and was blown away. He still remembers that first encounter.
"I actually thought that must have been how George Martin felt after he heard the Beatles," Adler says. At the time, they may not have looked like a conventional pop group: Cass Elliot was known almost as much for her size as her voice, and in Adler's memory the Mamas and Papas were "very dirty and funky and had probably been in those clothes for quite a while." Neither did they skew toward any particular genre of pop, drawing influence from their folk and rock backgrounds in equal measure, with intricate vocal arrangements as the most prominent feature.
It was this sound, and the songs -- including the now two-year-old "California Dreamin'," that convinced Adler of their potential.
Thrilled over the opportunity to record, the group offered "California Dreamin'" to McGuire as thanks for the connection to Adler. The song went onto his album This Precious Time
, with the Mamas and the Papas singing background vocals.
Adler convinced the group to record a version of their own, and in the fall of 1965 it was released as their first single. But it was hardly the immediate breakthrough they must have hoped for. "California Dreamin'" went nowhere in L.A., receiving only sporadic airplay. Michelle Phillips remembers that it took a radio station in Boston to break the song nationwide. And though the song never made it to No. 1, it stayed on the charts for 17 weeks.
The Mamas and the Papas released their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
, in 1966. They enjoyed a good deal of commercial and critical popularity, getting involved in events such as the Monterey Pop festival, which John Phillips co-produced. But the success was short-lived, partly due to the volatile atmosphere created by drug use and the intense interpersonal relationships within the band, and in 1968 the group split up. All four eventually released solo albums, but none ever achieved the level of success of their anthem to homesickness.
Listen to the March 19, 2001 Morning Edition
obituary of Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips
Listen to a rebroadcast of a 1986 Fresh Air
interview with John Phillips
Listen to an NPR 100
report about "Dream a Little Dream of Me"
another Mamas and the Papas hit.
Learn more about history
of the Mamas and the Papas.
Visit the official Cass Elliot
Read more about "California Dreamin'
" on former Mamas and the Papas member Denny Doherty
's Web site.
Read a biography of Mamas and the Papas producer Lou Adler
Read the liner notes
to If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
, the Mamas and the Papas album featuring "California Dreamin'".
See a Mamas and Papas timeline
at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Review a Mamas and the Papas discography
The Mamas and the Papas song "Creeque Alley
" examines the band's history and has a reference to "California Dreamin'."