VIP Mama Cass

Cass Elliot (September 19, 1941 - July 29, 1974)

"Mama" Cass Elliot was by all accounts an exceptionally intelligent, talented and giving individual. She always loved singing and performing, and started her career in summer stock productions while still a teen. Witty and captivating, with perfect pitch and impeccable timing, Cass was eventually paid court to by David Crosby, Graham Nash, the Beatles, Dave Mason, Graham Parsons, Donovan, Eric Clapton, and many others. She introduced Crosby to Nash and Nash to LSD. Contemporary artists from Boy George, kd lang, and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers cite Cass as an influence.

As overweight teenager, Ellen Cohen's family physician prescribed her increasing doses of Dexadrine, and she was also sent to a psychologist. Finding it impossible to sit still in her classes, Ellen dropped out of high school and went to night school to earn her final credits for graduation. It was then that she discovered Baltimore's downtown, with its beatnik society. She began to explore poetry readings, bookshops, and cafes of the neighborhood, smoking hash and grass at her friends' apartments afterwards. She soon changed her name and headed to New York, landing a job as a hat check girl at The Showplace in the West Village, where she sang around the piano at informal after hours shows. After her father died she went back to the DC area, and briefly enrolled at American University where she hosted a nightly jazz program, impressing all with her knowledge of musical history.

Folk music soon hit, and Cass shifted to that genre, forming the folk trio The Big 3 with Tim Rose and Jim Hendricks. While performing at New York City's The Bitter End on Bleeker Street, Cass, whose comic patter was as popular as her singing, once improvised a tale about Irving Banjo, the inventor of the banjo, who was an unemployed marijuana picker. While recording The Big 3's first, self-titled album, the band's manager Roy Silver, Cass and bassist Bob Bowers met in the control booth. "This really isn't happening" Silver said, and Bowers agreed. "Well, here, maybe this'll help," said Silver, bringing out a piece of hash. Cass "proceeded to magically create a pipe--complete with bowl and stem, out fo the foil lining from a pack of cigarettes."

"We went back out," remembers Bowers, and "we did it in one take...Tim and Jim had gotten a contact high...They got into the same space as we were -- which is to say relaxed! After that we basically recorded the whole album in about an hour and a half and those are the takes you hear."

Though distribution problems slowed sales, the band made a great impression during a Tonight Show performance, and was invited back regularly. Johnny Carson "thought Cass was tremendous." In an era where amateurish musicians abounded, Bowers said the Tonight Show musicians told him often, "Hey this group can really sing! In tune!" The Big 3 also performed regularly on shows from the Danny Kaye Show to Jack Linklater's Weekly Hootenany Show. While on a Hootenany tour with the likes of a pre-Byrds David Crosby and Balladeer Mike Clough, Clough recalls, "We were the bad kids and the ones that were smoking dope and all of these other things...But we had the world by the tail and we had everything going for us."

Though Cass had been smoking pot since her days in downtown Baltimore, "To buy pot then in the Village you had to go to a junkie," recalls Cass's friend, producer Erik Jacobsen. "There were no white potheads--very few. It was before that all happened." This reinforced the "sense of superiority and hipness" of the early cannabis smokers. "Everybody else seemed so stupid!" said Jacobsen. "And immature and just no taste and blind."

On the last leg of the tour, JFK was assassinated and Cass, Crosby recalls, refused to perform that night despite the objection of Linklater. Crosby and others backed her up. The event seemed to trigger intermittent depression, a condition that ran in Cass's family. Her maternal grandmother Chaya had been the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She also started having throat problems and panic attacks around this time.

VIP David Crosby said of Cass, "She was tremendously smart and certainly one of the funniest people I ever met in my life. She made me laugh so hard my sides hurt and it was intelligent humor--she didn't have to sit there and recite jokes to you that she'd heard someplace. Her take on things was funny, and she was quite the wonderful girl. She was a fascinating human being. And I loved her."

"We were all in love with Cass at one time or another," said John Sebastian. "Cass had a wonderful kind of funny, savoir faire quality about her mixed in with a kind of snugly friendliness that was contagious. Her warmth came through for us and we all cared very much for her." Many who knew her called her "the Gertrude Stein of her generation." Sebastian remembers at Cass's house, "There was always food and drink and you could crash there and it was right by Gristede's -- a great deli in New York. Cass loved to eat and so did I, so that was another thing that sort of drew us together, and we always used to get smoked turkey legs, which are really good if you're stoned!"

"Cass really had a good ear for anything: literature as well as films," said Zal Yanovsky of the Mugwumps, a band Cass formed along with Denny Doherty, Jim Hentricks of the Big 3, Sebastian on harmonica, and Art Blakey's nephew Art Stokes on drums, who was recruited by Cass. Sebastian believes Cass invented the term "teenyboppers" to describe the Mugwumps' underage fans, for whom she pioneered underage, alcohol-free shows.

In 1964, Cass was a trendsetter again when her connections with Timothy Leary and one of his chemists enabled the Mugwumps (with the exception of Hendricks) to try LSD. They had "like most of their friends, long been using diet pills and amyl nitrate to keep awake for the long hours of daily practice sessions followed by nightly gigs and the inevitable round of parties and drinks," but this was something completely different. Of those years, Doherty said, "We were like a bunch of otters at play, having a great time...laughing and playing and running around like a bunch of puppies."

Later, after Denny began singing with John and Michelle Phillips, Cass showed up at their door during their first LSD trip. "At the very moment the acid began to take effect, Cass appeared," Michelle remembers. "I saw her standing there in a pleated shirt and a pink angora sweater with great big eyelashes on and her hair in a flip and I just remember thinking, 'This is quite a drug!'" Initially, John resisted the idea of Cass joining their group, but soon Cass's voice was inspiring John's arrangements and it was Cass who came up with the name "The Mamas and the Papas." According to Michelle, Cass was by far the most popular member of the group, getting oodles more fan mail than the other three. "She really was wonderful and people adored her," Michelle said. Cass in particular "seemed to symbolize a new way of living and a freedom that was entirely fresh and contemporary."

Hits like "Monday, Monday," and "California Dreamin'" catapulted the band into stardom, and with her new-found wealth Cass bought a fleet of cars and was generous to her friends and family. After the band's last Ed Sullivan appearance, they sailed on the France for an Albert Hall gig, stopping first to score a pound of grass in Harvard Square. As the oceanliner pulled into Southhampton, the group's passports were seized and they were told they would be searched. Cass hid their pot in her bra and she and Michelle managed to flush it just in time. Cass was targeted, handcuffed and booked, ostensibly for stealing two towels from the Queens Gate Terrace hotel, but actually to squeeze her for information about a drug-dealing boyfriend. After she convinced police she knew nothing about his operation, Cass was pronounced not guilty by a magistrate. It was only months after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had drug trials, and it was all over the papers.

Cass became active in the 1972 McGovern for President campaign and she told interviewer Mike Douglas, "I think that I would like to be a senator or something in twenty years....I know the way I would like to see things for this country and when I talk to people, everybody wants pretty much the same thing: peace, enough jobs, no poverty, and good education....I'm concerned, and it's no good to be unconcerned and just sit there." It later emerged that the FBI had been monitoring Cass since her days in the Mugwumps, possibly due to an association with a drug dealer. In 1972 FBI sources revealed that she was of "the hippie generation," had allegedly smoked marijuana, was "very independent" and had "a mind of her own."

Unable to find true love and prey to bouts of depression and unscrupulous young men who took advantage of her, Cass succumbed to heroin but later stopped using it. She had a couple of incidents where she passed out before being found dead in her bed in London in July 1974 at the age of 32. She had just closed a hugely successful two-week run at the Palladium and a round of parties, including a birthday party for Mick Jagger. Contrary to popular lore, she did not choke to death, nor did she die of a drug overdose, according to the coroner, who concluded her over-strained heart had given out. The night she died, she wrote effusive liner notes for Doherty's solo album, "Waiting for a Song," on which she and Michelle sang back-up vocals.

In 1998 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Mamas and the Papas. Her daughter Owen accepted the award for Cass.

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Source: Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of Cass Elliot, by Eddi Fiegel, Copyright 2005 A Capella (Chicago)

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