With His Mamas and the Papas, John Phillips Fathered a Sublime New Sound

By Chris Willman
Updated March 30, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Greatness is often measured in terms of influence. But calculating the musical impact of the Mamas and the Papas, and of cofounder John Phillips — who died of heart failure March 18 at age 65 — runs you into the same problem as evaluating the legacy of their sun-soaked ’60s peers, the Beach Boys. The Mamas and the Papas’ layered harmonies were, ironically, so individualistic they were rarely imitated in a rock world focused on solo acts and frontmen. ”People ask me what influence John had,” says Lou Adler, the group’s producer, ”and you can’t pinpoint that, because nobody else has been able to do it. If you dissect his vocal arrangements on the Mamas and Papas albums, they’re amazing things. Before that, we’d have to go back to the [’50s and the] Hi-Los and the Four Freshmen, but John, and Brian Wilson, took ’em to another place.”

Southern California, to be specific. Soon after Phillips wrote the quintessential ode to sun lust, ”California Dreamin’,” in 1964, he and his group mates — his young bride Michelle, and folkies Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty — abandoned their Greenwich Village base to follow that orb to L.A., where Adler discovered them in 1965. Together just two years, they made an indelible imprint on youth culture, becoming sirens of the West, the hippies you could take home to Mom. Phillips’ arrangements were so unique that his writing seemed undervalued by comparison, but a tune like ”I Saw Her Again” could capture, as perfectly as anything in pop, that unwise temptation to string along an ex. Phillips used the band’s intertwined relationships as lyrical grist; that may have influenced one of rock’s other rare coed combos, Fleetwood Mac.

It’s no rumor that Phillips’ early glory overshadowed his later output, though he had two solo albums — one new, one from the vault — scheduled for release when he died. ”It came too soon, you know?” laments Adler of Phillips’ death, a fate the famously addicted Phillips put off by achieving sobriety in the early ’80s. ”That’s the tragic part of the drugs. Even though it’s not the reason his heart stopped when it stopped, somewhere down the line it had a lot to do with why he didn’t live to be 85…. John had a bunch of lives, but he should’ve had one more. He had a lot more music in him.” Phillips is survived by five children (including actress Mackenzie, and singers Chynna and Bijou) and the California dream.