The Tangled Web Legacy of West Coast Folk
“John and Mitchy…..
…..were gettin’ kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind”
The tale of “Creeque Alley” begins and ends with John Phillips.
John Phillips was born in August of 1935 in Parris Island, South Carolina John Edmund Andrew Phillips. Phillips had a Marine for a father and spent time in a Virginia military school before finishing up in public schools. From there it was on to the U.S. Naval Academy but he dropped out after a year.
Moving ahead, John would meet Holly Michelle Gilliam. Michelle was born in June of 1944 in Long Beach, California. She met John in San Francisco while he was still with “The Journeymen”. He divorced his wife of the time and married the 18-year-old Michelle in late 1962.
From there it was off to New York City where John John’s first venture into music was to form “The Journeymen” in Greenwich Village, with Scott McKenzie and Dick Weissman. That venture lasted until 1964 at which time the group disbanded. John and Michelle would make their way to the Virgin Islands just after they formed “The New Journeymen” to vacation. There they would frequent a club in a spot in the Islands called “Crequi Alley” and thus the title of what would later become The Mamas and Papas 8th charting single.
“Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can’t be trusted
And Mitchy wants to go to the sea
Cass can’t make it, she says we’ll have to fake it
We knew she’d come eventually
Greasin’ on American Express cards
It’s low rent, but keeping out the heat’s hard
Duffy’s good vibrations and our imaginations
Can’t go on indefinitely
And California dreamin’ is becomin’ a reality”
All of the above come at the end of the song “Creeque Alley” but actually describes the New Journeymen’s time in the Virgin Islands – where John, Denny and Michelle were vacationing (without any income). Cass Elliot was missing them and especially her heart throb Denny Doherty, that she flew down with a friend to join the three.
“Zal and Denny workin’ for a penny….
Zal Yanovsky was torn in December of 1944 in Toronto, Canada Zalman Yanovsky. He started off in a Canadian coffee house before teaming up with fellow Canadian Denny Doherty in a group called “The Halifax Three”. They evolved from a group called “The Colonials” and included Pat LaCroix, Richard Byrne and Denny Doherty. They met Zal and and met John Phillips’ “Journeymen”.
Denny Doherty was born in November of 1940 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Dennis Gerrard Stephen Doherty. His first band was called “The Hepsters” before he quit and joined “The Colonials”. When the “Halifax Three” broke up Doherty and Yanovsky headed for Hollywood, California. Things did not go well in sunny Cal for the pair until a new acquaintance, Cass Elliot convinced her manager to hire them and so they continued as “The Halifax Three”. That didn’t work long and so they teamed up with Cass in “The Big Three” which first inlcuded James Hendricks and Tim Rose along with Elliot.
“In a coffee house Sebastian sat….”
John Sebastian was born in March of 1944 in Greenwich Village, New York John Benson Sebastian. John was from a media oriented family and his godmother was Vivian Vance of “Ethel Mertz – I Love Lucy” fame. He grew up around folk singers such as Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie in the Village. As a teenager he served as a valet and driver for blues musicians Sonny Terry and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Some of his early work was appearing on Billy Faier’s 1964 long play “The Beast of Billy Faier” and Fred Neil’s album “Bleecker, MacDougal” and Tom Rush’s 1965 album. Next he joined “The Even Dozen Jug Band” – a band which also include Maria Muldaur and Steve Katz (“Blood Sweat and Tears”, “The Blues Project”, “American Flyer”).
“McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin’ higher….”
Roger McGuinn was born in July of 1942 in Chicago, Illinois James Joseph McGuinn III. During his performing years he went first as “Jim” McGuinn and then “Roger” McGuinn. In his early days he worked as a supporting musician in Chicago with “The Limeliters”, “The Chad Mitchell Trio”, Judy Collins, Simon and Garfunkle and Bobby Darin. For a brief stint, he worked in New York as a “Brill Building” writer.
In 1963 he made his way to California and landed a gig in The Troubadour” nightclub. It was then that he would meet Gene Clark and begin working together as a duo initially.
Barry McGuire was born in October of 1935 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Barry met McGuinn at the Troubadour where they both performed but not together but definitely moving in the same Los Angeles musician circles. McGuire’s path would go through Randy Sparks’ “New Christy Minstrels” before hitting big (once) with his protest anthem. McGuire – who had befriended Phillips, was instrumental in getting John Phillips and friends their introduction to Lou Alder – a co-owner of McGuire’s label – Dunhill.
“Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps…”
The Mugwumps formed in 1964 with Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot, James Hendricks (earlier in “The Big Three” and later in “The Lamp of Childhood” in 1967) and Zal Yanovsky. For a time John Sebastian was also in the group but not pictured on the long play below.
“McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher…”
So McGuinn found his way to the “Byrds” and McGuire broke away from “The New Christy Minstrels” and this is a reference to both of them hitting the top of the Billboard Charts with their debut singles both going to number 1 – “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the Spring of 1965 and Barry’s “Eve of Destruction” hitting the top spot in the summer of the same year.
“Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful….”
John and Zal put together the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965 first joined by Jan Carl and Steve Boone. Joe Butler came in quickly to replace Carl (right after their first performance in Greenwich Village). Both Boone and Butler had been with a group called “The Kingsmen” – not the “Louie, Louie” variety. They landed a contract with Elektra records and their very first effort went to number 9 – “Do You Believe in Magic”.
The group charted 14 times in the Hot 100 with “Summer in the City” being their crowning achievement going to number 1 in the summer of 1966 and staying there for three weeks.
Zal would depart the lineup in 1967 after being hit with a drug charge – and he made things worse by giving up names of other musicians with the threat of being deported. The community apparently retaliated against the entire group running a boycott advertisement of the group’s records and performances in the Los Angeles Free Press (the Left strikes again!).
Zal was replaced by Jerry Yester from “The Modern Folk Quintet” and “The New Christy Minstrels. In 1968 Sebastian departed leaving only a trio. With help from other writers and studio musicians they managed to final minor hits and that was the end.
The Mamas and Papas
And so – a bit oddly, John Phillips signed a contract with Dunhill Records but the initial contract only had his group as a trio, with Michelle and Denny even though Cass was in tight with the three. She became an official member of the new group at the insistence of a contract reworking by the insistence of Michelle, Denny and Lou Adler himself. Not sure why she was initially on the outside.
Their first assignment at Dunhill was to back McGuire on his long play “This Precious Time”. They had cut a single just before that for Dunhill, “Go Where You Wanna Go” a cut which went nowhere (the single is very rare and comes with a very scare picture sleeve – A “California Dreaming” picture sleeve is also quite rare – both sleeves being listed in “Picture Sleeves Record Guide” (co-authored by friend and collector Fred Hoyt) for a nice three figure sum – minimum).
The “5th Dimension” would debut with the song in early 1967 taking it to number 16. Johnny Rivers brought the Dimension to his new label “Soul City” and they laid down “Go Where You Wanna Go” in a nearly identical delivery from that of the Mamas and Papas. (The group was first known as “The Hi Fi’s” and then “The Versatiles” before changing their name and released one 1966 single under that name.
Post Mamas & Papas
The beginning of the end for the group was probably forecast when Cass Elliot released a solo “Dream a Little Dream of Me” which was released as being a “Mamas and Papas” single featuring Cass. The song charted at number 12 in the summer of 1968. There would be a few more group hits in 1968 but the break up became official in 1969.
Papa John would then release a solo LP “John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.” in 1970 and Denny would cut his LP “Whatcha Gonna Do?” in 1971. Cass would keep recording and charted five long plays and seven singles.
Michelle would take a stab at one long play in 1977 “Victim of Romance” and that was it for her solo recording career, turning to acting instead appearing in many motion pictures.
The group went through a contract squabble with Dunhill – to whom they owed a final long play. A compromise was reached when John penned an album worth of songs, reuniting the group temporarily to record them to avoid a lawsuit – releasing “People Like Us” on his own label “Warlock” distributed by Dunhill. In reality the group was seldom in the studio at the same time, dropping vocals in from individual sessions most often. The LP did not sell well and was by far their most meager effort.
New Mamas and Papas
In 1980 John Phillips was confronting drug charges from his constant struggle with substance during his career. He then put together his new lineup calling in Denny and this time filling the female roles with daughter MacKenzie and former lead singer Elaine McFarlane from “Spanky and Our Gang” – an amble and strong voice replacement for Cass.
They recorded in 1981 and then toured in 1982 losing money in the process. John stopped the group in 1983 but reassembled in 1985 at which time they toured the world and did more than 250 performances. Both John and MacKenzie continue to struggle with drugs and at times it was apparent while they were on stage.
The group continued into 1987 at which time John’s old “Journeymen” group partner – Scott McKenzie replaced Denny Doherty. Somehow they kept things together for several years and then MacKenzie was replaced by Laurie Beebe Lewis who had been with an updated version of “The Buckinghams”.
Many ups and downs in personnel – with John leaving the group because of liver disease being replaced by a returning Denny Doherty. Spanky was the next to depart and two new females came in – Deb Lyons and Lisa Brescia with Lisa taking over lead vocals. Deb was a songwriter and worked with many performers including Rosanne Cash, Carrie Underwood, Donna Summer and others including Jill Gibson.
Gibson worked as a composer with Jan and Dean and collaborated with Roger Christian. For a short time she was romantically involved with Jan Berry. She was around the Mamas and Papas during the stint mentioned above when John “fired” Michelle from the group (in 1966). Jill filled in for Michelle. Plans were made by Dunhill to place Gibson’s photo on the group’s second LP. She hit the road with the group in 1966 and they made a stop in Denver, Colorado. During this time John began to have second thoughts about Michelle’s replacement which was working out well in performances but John felt was not creating a good chemistry within the group, and so Michelle returned.
The second LP had to be recorded – replacing Jill Gibson’s vocals with Michelle and the resulting LP was titled “The Mamas & The Papas”. A few copies do exist of the initial LP titled “Crashon Screamon All Fall Down”.
At one point Barry McGuire came into the ever-changing lineup. The list seems endless with Chrissy Faith, David Baker, Mark Williamson and Janelle Sadler all taking their turn in keeping the “Mamas and Papas” legend alive. One lone CD “Many Mamas and Many Papas” was the sole recording output from these assemblages which was released on CD in 2010.
The ever-changing New Mamas and Papas lineup ironically lasted much longer than the original foursome.
The Mamas and Papas placed 15 songs on the Hot 100 and two more by members: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Elliot and “Mississippi” by John. Two more singles appeared on the “Bubbling Under” charts: “Straight Shooter” #130 the “B” side of “Twelve Thirty” and “Hey Girl” #134 with the flip side being “Glad to Be Unhappy”. That song was written by Rodgers and Hart and contains the lines:
“Like a straying baby lamb
With no mama and no papa
I’m so unhappy, yeah
But oh so glad”
Cass Elliot died on July 29th, 1974 in Mayfair, London, England at the young age of 32.
John Phillips’ life was a jagged journey and resulted in a tragic culmination for his daughter MacKenzie. John died in Palm Springs on March 18th, 2001 from a heart attack with a body which had to be wracked with drug abuse at age 65.
Denny Doherty died on January 19, 2007 in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada due to kidney failure.
The Entire Creeque Alley Story…..
Would you believe there is an entire web site devoted to breaking down the song lyrics in “Creeque Alley”? Yep! Click on the image below to take a very long stroll down “Creeque Alley”.
I always found it a bit strange that some of John Phillips’ compositions were a bit accusatory of other group members. And these songs weren’t part of something Phillips would record Post-Mamas/Papas but right during their own heyday with all group members gloriously singing along!
Another example of this curious song-writing approach came from the group “Ace”:
“Although widely interpreted as being about adultery, the song was in fact composed by lead singer Paul Carrack upon discovering that bassist Terry Comer had been secretly working with the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. Comer returned to Ace in time to play on the song.”
So there was old innocent Terry just strumming along on “How Long” and enjoying every minute and royalty – The song was their one giant hit – number 3 on Billboard in 1973.
Look Through My Window
“This song was written by John Phillips in 1964, after a brief separation from his future wife, Michelle. He assumed she was out in California with her new lover but in reality she was in Greenwich Village, blocks away from his house.”
Go Where You Wanna Go
“John Phillips wrote this song about Michelle Phillips’ affair with Russ Titelman, a songwriter and record producer who did production work for Randy Newman, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Chaka Khan. John and Michelle got married in 1962, but the following year their marriage was on the rocks. Michelle took up with Titelman and moved with him from Los Angeles to New York. This prompted John to write the song, with the very specific lines:
Three thousand miles, that’s how far you’ll go
And you said to me “Please don’t follow”
Michelle and Russ split up not long after, but it was clear that Michelle viewed their marriage as more flexible than John did.”
I Saw Her Again
“This song was written by John Phillips, the leader of the Mamas And The Papas, about the affair between his wife, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty, which ultimately led to Michelle Phillips’ unceremonious dismissal from the band and John and Michelle’s divorce.”
(The above are from the Web Site: Songfacts)