With his 1965 song "California Dreamin'," John Phillips who died Sunday morning at 65 from heart failure indelibly captured a moment in the late-'60s hippie migration to the West Coast that links his group the Mamas and the Papas to two pop-music movements.
"Papa John" and fellow group members Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips all met in the early '60s, in New York's Greenwich Village folkie scene. But like multitudes of young people at the time, they were seduced by California's burgeoning alternative lifestyle, which would find expression in the music of Buffalo Springfield and the Grateful Dead.
But the Mamas and the Papas' music harked back to close harmony groups Phillips admired, such as the Four Lads, and Broadway composers he admired, such as the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. But Phillips clearly the Mamas and the Papas' motivating force, whose talent for ambitious vocal arrangements and complex songwriting arrived fully formed in 1965 had to play catch-up to the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who already had been sending hits up the charts for two years before Phillips' group debuted with "California Dreamin' " (RealAudio excerpt).
Additionally, the Mamas and the Papas foreshadowed Fleetwood Mac as a California co-ed band that took musical inspiration from the often fractious interpersonal relationships within: Phillips had married Michelle Phillips by the time of "California Dreamin'," but the song "I Saw Her Again" addressed the brief affair she carried on with Doherty.
As the initial run of the Mamas and the Papas wound down in 1967, Phillips penned another era-defining classic, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," for Scott McKenzie, who had been in Phillips' earlier band, the Journeymen. The tune served as the unofficial theme song for 1967's epochal Monterey Pop Festival, of which Phillips had been a primary organizer.
Shortly afterward, Phillips divorced his wife and began his descent into drug addiction and alcoholism that would lead to a conviction of conspiracy to distribute narcotics in 1980 (which was detailed in his 1986 memoir, "Papa John") and a liver transplant in the early '90s.
He would only record sporadically after the final, contractually obligated 1971 Mamas and the Papas album, People Like Us. In the early '70s he made a legendary, still-unreleased album, Pay, Pack and Forward, which featured performances from the Rolling Stones and may be released on CD for the first time on the English label Eagle. He also had completed a new album, Slow Starter, which has no label yet.
The most recent hit song Phillips had a hand in writing was the Beach Boys' 1988 comeback effort, "Kokomo." The Grateful Dead also consistently played his "Me and My Uncle" (RealAudio excerpt) well into the 1990s.