Ellen Naomi Cohen – better known as Mama Cass Elliot, was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962, and later moved with her family to nearby Alexandria, Virginia. (Her bandmate Denny Doherty claims she named herself "Cass" after "Peggy Cass" while in high school.)
Cass discovered acting while attending George Washington High School, winning a part in a school production of The Boy Friend. She left school shortly before graduation to pursue an acting career in New York City. She won a part in the touring show of The Music Man, but otherwise had little success in the theater.
After another brief stint in New York City, Cass returned to Washington, DC to attend American University. She joined up with banjo player/singer Tim Rose and singer John Brown to form her first band, The Triumvirate. In 1963, Brown left the group and was replaced by James Hendricks. The new group began playing as "Cass Elliot and the Big Three."
Wild Women – Cass Elliot and The Big 3
The group continued to experience upheaval, with Rose leaving the group in 1964. Elliot and Hendricks joined future Mamas & the Papas bandmate Dougherty and Zal Yanovsky to form The Mugwumps, which lasted a mere eight months. Cass went solo, while Doherty joined John and Michelle Phillips in The New Journeymen. Finally, in 1965, Cass joined the group… and the band needed a new name. The Mamas & the Papas was born.
The group was legendary for its harmonies, which spawned several hits including "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday."
California Dreamin' – The Mamas & The Papas
Monday, Monday – The Mamas & The Papas
The group parted ways in 1971 after fulfilling their contractual obligation. Cass had already begun appearing as a solo artist in October 1968, and continued pursuing a career after the band formally broke up. She was a regular on a number tv variety and talk shows, including Hollywood Squares (a game show), The Johnny Carson Show, The Carol Burnett show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Tonight Show, and The Mike Douglass Show.
She also had two television variety specials: The Mama Cass Television Show (1969), and "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore" (1973). In addition to her more distinguished work, she also had the dubious honor of singing the jingle for a burger chain. ("Hurry on down to Hardee's, where the burgers are char-broiled.")
Cass was at the peak of her solo career when she died in her sleep on July 29, 1974. Contrary to popular rumor, it as a heart attack – not a sandwich – that ended her life. While Cass is still heavily associated with The Mamas & The Papas, her solo work continues to resonate with other artists. But for many, she will always be a Mama.
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