Birth of “Mama” Cass Elliot
"If you truly dig what you are doing, if you lay it out that way, nobody can not respond. That's what rock and roll is; it's relentless."
Born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941, in Baltimore, Cass Elliot was expected to seek a college education. Instead she travelled to New York City to become an actress. She was part of a touring production of The Music Man and produced a play at Café La Mama. But in 1963 she formed a progressive folk trio called the Big 3, which made two albums and appeared on the television shows The Tonight Show, Hootenanny, and The Danny Kaye Show. She married her Big 3 band member Jim Hendricks in 1963 and the threesome became a foursome called the Mugwumps. In 1965, Elliot joined fellow Mugwumps member Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips in the Virgin Islands, where they began performing as the Mamas and the Papas.
The group performed original songs by John Phillips with tight harmonic arrangements, releasing their first single “California Dreamin’” in December 1965. The title of their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears described both the group’s visual impact (far from the usual uniform look of mid-1960s bands) and their unique sound. Their next album The Mamas and the Papas featured the song “Words of Love” with a soaring solo track from Elliot. Her singing voice seemed effortless, flowing out from her bounteous spirit.
By 1968, Elliot was divorced and embarking on a solo career, proclaimed by her solo effort “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on the last album by the Mamas and the Papas. She had the solo hits “Make Your Own Kind of Music” and “New World Coming” in 1970 and began appearing on scores of television shows, where she appeared with Mike Douglas, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Tom Jones, Carol Burnett and others. She gave an interview to Rolling Stone when she debuted her first solo album.
In 1974, Elliot appeared for two weeks at the London Palladium. It was during this engagement that she succumbed to a heart attack on July 29, 1974. (Rumors of her death by choking on food were contradicted by the coroner’s report.) She was survived by her daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell, who remembers her as “someone who embraced creativity, individuality and a true optimism about living.”
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of “Mama” Cass Elliot ." (Viewed on June 24, 2018) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/sep/19/1943/birth-of-mama-cass-elliot>.