Singer John Phillips was a member and principal songwriter of the popular 1960s folk rock band The Mamas and the Papas, along with Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips.
John Philips was born August 30th 1935 in Parris Island, South Carolina. His alcoholic father, a former US Marine Corps officer, abandoned him to be raised by his mother and sister. Not a great student, he somehow got into the US Naval Academy in the 1950’s but left his formal education for good and headed for New York. In 1965, Phillips and his wife traveled to the Virgin Islands. Friends Cass Elliot and Dennis Doherty joined them there. The group turned into a quartet, named themselves The Mamas and the Papas, and landed a recording contract. This saga was immortalized in one of the group’s hit songs, Creeque Alley.
It was in New York that Phillips met two other singers, Dick Weissman and Scott McKenzie and formed a folk group called The Journeymen. The group met with great success, recording three albums and even making several television appearances. But the group soon dissolved over creative differences, and Phillips used the opportunity to create a new group, The New Journeyman with his 15 year old wife, aspiring model Michelle..
In 1965, Phillips and his wife traveled to the Virgin Islands to work on material for The New Journeymen. Friend Cass Elliot, a member of the band The Big Three, and Dennis Doherty, who previously performed with The Halifax Three, joined them there. The group turned into a quartet, named themselves The Mamas and the Papas, and landed a recording contract with Lou Adler’s record label, Dunhill. Working with Adler as their producer, The Mamas and the Papas went into the studio. Their first single was supposed to be “Go Where You Wanna Go,” which John reportedly wrote in response to Michelle’s affair with another man. Adler, however, decided that “California Dreamin'” was a better choice. The song took off, making it to the No. 4 spot on the pop charts in March of 1966. Music critics and fans were won over by its melancholy lyrics and lush sound.
The Mamas and the Papas scored their first No. 1 single in May with “Monday, Monday.” While popular with listeners, the song was reportedly not a favorite among members of the group. John Phillips wrote it and lobbied for the group to record it. Overall, he was athe strongest creative force behind the scenes, writing or co-writing many of the band’s songs.
Michelle and Denny had an affair. The experience became the inspiration for the song “I Saw Her Again,” which John and Denny co-wrote. Michelle and John separated for a time following the infidelity, and both pursued other relationships. Michelle became involved with Gene Clark from the Byrds, which caused even more problems between her and the other group members.
During the summer of 1966, while they began working on their second album, the other band members fired Michelle Phillips and replaced her with Jill Gibson. But Michelle’s fans booed her replacement and was soon back with the band and with Phillips. In June of 1967, Phillips helped organize the legendary musical event, the Monterey Pop Festival. Held during the “Summer of Love,” the event drew many who were part of the burgeoning hippie scene. John Phillips had actually written a popular hippie anthem of the time, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which was a hit that summer for Scott McKenzie.
The Monterey Pop Festival also served as a turning point for The Mamas and the Papas; it was the last time they all performed together live. In 1968, the band released another self-titled album, which failed to produce any significant hits. The Mamas and the Papas called it quits that July with its members going their separate ways. In 1970, John and Michelle ended their marriage.