Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen; September 19, 1941 – July 29, 1974), also known as Mama Cass, was an American singer and member of The Mamas & the Papas. After the group broke up, she released five solo albums. In 1998, Elliot, John Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their work as The Mamas & the Papas. Her daughter Owen Kuegell stood in for her mother at the ceremony

Early life

Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen to Philip and Bess Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland. She had a younger sister, Leah, who also became a singer as a member of the Coyote Sisters.
The Cohens later moved to Alexandria, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, D.C.). She adopted the name "Cass" in high school—possibly, as Denny Doherty tells it, borrowing it from the actress Peggy Cass—but in any case, it was "Cass", not "Cassandra." She assumed the surname Elliot sometime later, in memory of a friend who had died. While still attending George Washington High School, she became interested in acting and was cast in a school production of the play The Boy Friend. She left high school shortly before graduation and relocated to New York City to further her acting career. She toured in the musical The Music Man, but lost the part of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, to Barbra Streisand in 1962.

Early career

While working as a cloakroom attendant at The Showplace in Greenwich Village in New York, Elliot would sometimes sing, but it wasn't until she returned to the Washington D.C. area, to attend American University, (not Swarthmore College as mentioned in the biographical song Creeque Alley) that she began to pursue a singing career. As America's folk music scene was on the rise, Elliot met banjoist and singer Tim Rose and singer John Brown, and the three began performing as The Triumvirate. In 1963, James Hendricks replaced Brown and the trio was renamed The Big 3. Elliot's first recording with The Big 3 was Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod, was released by FM Records in 1963. In 1964, the group appeared on an "open mike" night at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, billed as "Cass Elliot and the Big 3", followed onstage by folksinger Jim Fosso and bluegrass banjoist Eric Weissberg (who would become famous eight years later for performing "Dueling Banjos" on the soundtrack for Deliverance in 1972).
When Tim Rose left The Big 3 in 1964, Elliot and Hendricks teamed with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty to form The Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Cass performed as a solo act for a while. In the meantime, Yanovsky and John Sebastian co-founded The Lovin' Spoonful, while Doherty joined The New Journeymen, a group that also included John Phillips and his wife, Michelle. In 1965, Doherty convinced Phillips that Elliot should join the group which she did while she and the group members were vacationing in the Virgin Islands.
A popular legend about Elliot is that her vocal range was improved by three notes after she was hit on the head by some copper tubing while walking through a construction site behind the bar where The New Journeymen were playing in the Virgin Islands. Elliot herself confirmed the story in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, saying,

“It’s true, I did get hit on the head by a pipe that fell down and my range was increased by three notes. They were tearing this club apart in the islands, revamping it, putting in a dance floor. Workmen dropped a thin metal plumbing pipe and it hit me on the head and knocked me to the ground. I had a concussion and went to the hospital. I had a bad headache for about two weeks and all of a sudden I was singing higher. It’s true. Honest to God. However, friends later said that the pipe story was a less embarrassing explanation for why John Phillips had kept her out of the group for so long, the real reason being that he considered her too fat.

The Mamas & the Papas

With two female members, The New Journeymen needed a new name. According to Doherty, Elliot had the inspiration for the band's new name; as written on his website.

" We're all just lying around vegging out watching TV and discussing names for the group. The New Journeymen was not a handle that was going to hang on this outfit. John was pushing for The Magic Cyrcle. Eech, but none of us could come up with anything better, then we switch the channel and, hey, it's the Hells Angels on the Carson show... And the first thing we hear is: "Now hold on there, Hoss. Some people call our women cheap, but we just call them our Mamas." Cass jumped up: "Yeah! I want to be a Mama." And Michelle is going: "We're the Mamas! We're the Mamas!" OK. I look at John. He's looking at me going: "The Papas?" Problem solved. A toast! To The Mamas and the Papas. Well, after many, many toasts, Cass and John are passed out "

Doherty also said that the occasion marked the beginning of his affair with Michelle Phillips. Elliot, who was in love with Doherty, was displeased when he told her of the affair. Doherty has said that Elliot once proposed to him, but that he was so stoned at the time, he could not even respond.
Elliot, known for her sense of humor and optimism, was considered by some to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her powerful, distinctive voice was a large factor in their success. She is best remembered for her vocals on the group's hits "California Dreamin'," "Monday Monday," and "Words of Love," and particularly for the solo "Dream a Little Dream of Me," which the group recorded in 1968 after learning about the death of Fabian Andre, one of the men who co-wrote it, whom Michelle Phillips had met years earlier. Elliot's version is noteworthy for its contemplative pace, whereas almost all earlier recordings of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (including one by Nat King Cole and another by Ozzie Nelson) had been up-tempo versions—the song having actually been written in 1931 as a dance tune for the nightclubs of the day.
The Mamas & the Papas continued to record to meet the terms of their record contract. Their final album was released in 1971.

Solo career

After the breakup of The Mamas & the Papas, Elliot embarked on a solo singing career. Her most successful recording during this period was 1968's "Dream a Little Dream of Me" from her solo album of the same name, released by Dunhill Records though it had originally been released on the album The Papas & the Mamas Presented By The Mamas and the Papas, earlier that year.

Las Vegas incident

In October 1968, Elliot made her live solo debut headlining in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. Scheduled for a three week engagement at $40,000 per week with two shows per night, Elliot went on a six month long crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. According to Elliot, the weight loss led to a stomach ulcer and throat problems, which she treated by drinking milk and cream (and gaining back 50 pounds in the process). For three weeks before the first performance, a nervous Elliot was confined to her bed as the musical director, the band and the production supervisor attempted to put together a show in her absence. Although scheduled to rehearse for a full three days before the show opened, Elliot managed to get through only part of one run through with the band before claiming that she was losing her voice. She skipped the remainder of rehearsals and drank tea and lemon, hoping to recover and pull herself together for opening night.
On the evening of Tuesday, October 16, an audience of 950 people, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Jimi Hendrix, filled the Circus Maximus theatre. Joan Baez, Liza Minnelli and Mia Farrow had sent flowers to Elliot's dressing room. But backstage, a shivering Elliot had developed a raging fever and her vocal cords were hemorrhaging. Friends attempted to urge her manager to cancel the show, but he felt it was too important and insisted that she perform. Sick and having barely rehearsed, Elliot began to fall apart as she was performing. Her voice was weak and barely audible, and despite the celebrity well-wishers, the large crowd was not sympathetic. At the end of the show, she returned to the stage to apologize to the audience stating "This is the first night and it will get better", then sang "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and left the stage as the audience applauded half-heartedly. She returned later that night to perform the second show, but her voice was worse and many of the audience noisily walked out.
Reviews were harsh. Esquire magazine called the show "a disaster" that was "heroic in proportion, epic in scope." The Los Angeles Free Press called the show "an embarrassing drag." Newsweek compared the show to the Titanic disaster: "Like some great ocean liner embarking on an ill-fated maiden voyage, Mama Cass slid down the ways and sank to the bottom." The show closed after only one night and Elliot flew back to Los Angeles for what was described as "a tonsillectomy."
Within hours, rumors began to spread that Elliot had been taking drugs in the weeks before the performance. In her biography, Dream a Little Dream of Me, author Eddi Fiegel wrote that Elliot later admitted to a boyfriend that she had shot up on heroin immediately before going on stage. Embarrassed by the debacle, Elliot plunged into a deep depression.

Later work

Elliot appeared in two television variety specials: The Mama Cass Television Show (ABC, 1969) and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (CBS, 1973). She was a regular guest on TV talk shows and variety shows in the 1970s, including The Mike Douglas Show, The Andy Williams Show, Hollywood Squares, The Johnny Cash Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Carol Burnett Show and was a guest panelist for a week on the game show Match Game '73. She guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and also appeared on the show 13 other times. She also appeared on and co-hosted The Music Scene on ABC and was featured on the first The Midnight Special on NBC.
In 1972, she made three appearances on the variety series The Julie Andrews Hour. Her final appearance on the show was the Christmas installment that aired on Wednesday, December 20, 1972. In December, 1978, four years after Elliot's death, the episode was rebroadcast on syndicated stations as a Christmas special called Merry Christmas With Love, Julie. However, all of Elliot's solos were cut from the syndicated prints. In 2009, a complete videotape of The Julie Andrews Hour Christmas Show was donated to The Paley Center For Media in New York with all of Elliot's numbers intact. In 1973, she performed in Saga of Sonora, a 1973 TV music-comedy-western special with Jill St. John, Vince Edwards, Zero Mostel, and Lesley Ann Warren.
She also sang the jingle "Hurry on down to Hardee's, where the burgers are charco-broiled" for Hardee's fast-food advertisements.
Throughout the early 1970s, Elliot continued her acting career as well. She had a featured role in the 1970 movie Pufnstuf and made guest appearances on TV's The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Young Dr. Kildare, Love, American Style, and The Red Skelton Show, among others.
In 1973, Elliot hired Allan Carr, who at the time managed the careers of Tony Curtis, Ann-Margret, and Peter Sellers, as her manager. Carr felt that Elliot needed to leave pop and rock music altogether, and head into the cabaret circuit, so a show was put together that consisted of old standards along with a few new songs written for her by friends. The act included Elliot and two male singers, who served as backing singers and sidekicks during the musical numbers. The title of the show, Don't Call Me Mama Anymore, was named after one of the songs written by Elliot's friend, Earle Brown. The song was born out of Elliot's frustration with being identified as "Mama Cass".
After the show debuted on February 9, 1973 in Pittsburgh, Elliot felt she was ready to tackle Las Vegas once again and premiered at the Flamingo. This time, Elliot received rave reviews. The Las Vegas Sun wrote, "Cass Elliot, making a strong point that she is no longer Mama Cass, has a good act serving notice that she is here to stay. The audience was with her all the way... no empty seats anywhere." She then followed up her act in casinos and tony nightclubs in cities throughout the country.

Personal Life

Elliot was married twice, the first time in 1963 to James Hendricks, her groupmate in The Big 3 and The Mugwumps. This was reportedly a platonic arrangement to assist him in avoiding being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War; the marriage reportedly was never consummated and was annulled in 1968. In 1971, Elliot married journalist Baron Donald von Wiedenman who was heir to a Bavarian barony. Their marriage ended in divorce after a few months.
Elliot gave birth to a daughter, Owen Vanessa Elliot, on April 26, 1967. She never publicly identified the father, but many years later, Michelle Phillips helped Owen locate her biological father. After her death, Elliot's younger sister, Leah Kunkel, received custody of Owen, then just seven years old. Owen grew up to become a singer as well and toured with Beach Boys member Al Jardine.


At the height of her solo career in 1974, Elliot performed two weeks of sold-out concerts at the London Palladium. She telephoned Michelle Phillips after the final concert on July 28, elated that she had received standing ovations each night. She then retired for the evening, and died in her sleep at age 32. Sources state her death was due to a heart attack. Elliot died in a London flat, No. 12 at 9 Curzon Place, Shepherd Market, Mayfair, which was on loan from singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Four years later, The Who's drummer Keith Moon died in the same flat at the same age. Elliot was entombed in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
An oft-repeated urban legend states that Elliot choked to death on a ham sandwich. The story, which started following the discovery of her body, was based on speculation in the initial media coverage. Police had told reporters that a partially eaten sandwich found in her room might have been to blame, though an autopsy had yet to be conducted. Despite the post-mortem examination finding that Elliot had died of a heart attack and no food at all was found in her windpipe, the false story that she choked on a sandwich has persisted in the decades following her death. In fact Elliot had lost 80 pounds (36 kg) in the eight months before her death by fasting four days a week. Her fatal heart attack was most likely related to this extreme weight loss measure.

Cass Elliot
Cass Elliot Johnny Cash 1969.JPG
Elliot with Johnny Cash, 1969.
BornEllen Naomi Cohen
September 19, 1941
Baltimore, MarylandU.S.
DiedJuly 29, 1974 (aged 32)
Other namesMama Cass
  • Philip Cohen
  • Bess Cohen
RelativesLeah Cohen (sister)
Musical career
Years active1959–1974
Associated acts