Yeah, that’s right, the Mamas & the Papas. Wanna make something of it? I’m sure some people think of the group as boring soft-rock, simply because they haven’t listened too closely, but the Mamas & the Papas were for a short while in the ’60s one of the best folk-rock groups, with one of the best harmonic vocal blends outside of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. John Phillips was among the most talented songwriters of the era, and in Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips, the group had three great singers whose ranges worked incredibly well together.
The music of the Mamas & the Papas has been with me as long as I can remember: my earliest memories of specific music revolve around them and the Supremes’ I Hear a Symphony, when I was about 2 or 3 years old. My mother would play them pretty frequently, so I knew their music even before I knew the Beatles, not to mention that the beautiful Michelle Phillips (and her impossibly long legs in the group bathtub photo on the cover of their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears) was one of the earliest crushes I can remember having, before I even knew what a “crush” was. Which would all make it tempting to say that I like the Mamas & the Papas mostly for sentimental reasons, but all these years later, I know there’s more to it than that. It’s hard to argue with songs as great and catchy as “California Dreamin’,” “I Saw Her Again,” and “Creeque Alley.” I know when I like bands for sentimental rather than critical reasons, and I’m pretty sure I would have liked the Mamas & the Papas regardless of early attachments to them.
Interestingly, although those songs mentioned above (as well as a couple of lesser-known ones, like “Straight Shooter” and “Somebody Groovy”) have always been obvious touchstones with the group, one of the songs that has grown in stature for me over the years is “Words of Love,” from their 1966 second album, The Mamas & the Papas. When I was young I thought it was a cover of some old Tin Pan Alley type of standard (based mostly on the instrumentation, I suppose), and didn’t give it too much thought, but later I realized that it was a John Phillips original — which alone is impressive because it has such a classic feel. But what really stands out are two things: the song’s flow — the way it blends the different parts seamlessly, particularly going into and out of the “You oughtta know by now…” part — and Cass Elliot’s vocals. Although Elliot had a very different voice than Janis Joplin, I’d put here up in Joplin’s class any day — the aforementioned “you oughtta know” part, and her buildup to the end of the song are pretty awe-inspiring (also listen closely to her “you don’t understand…” section of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” but that’s a different song). Without her powerhouse performance, the song would merely be a catchy ditty, but Elliot makes it a classic moment in blues-influenced ’60s pop singing.