45 years ago this month, in 1974, we lost Cass Elliot due to heart failure. We look back on Cass’ most successful year as a solo performer, 1969, the official year of the breakup of The Mamas and The Papas.
By Warren Kurtz
Joel Diamond and Cass Elliot, 1969 photo by Tommy Mottola, courtesy of Joel Diamond
The Mamas and The Papas’ final Top 40 single debuted in the summer of 1968. It was a slowed down cover of a 1931 dance hit “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” On the Dunhill 45 label, the artist was listed as “MAMA CASS with The Mamas & The Papas,” foreshadowing a solo career to begin for Cass Elliot. Dunhill followed with the single “California Earthquake” in the fall of 1968, with Mama Cass listed as the artist. This recording of John Hartford’s composition reached No. 67.
1969 proved to be Cass’ best solo year on the singles chart with three 45s in the Top 100, beginning with the bouncy “Move in a Little Closer, Baby.” The recording reached No. 58 and featured brass, drums, harmonies, a bit of strings and a lyrical promise, “Together we can make it happen.” Music producer Joel Diamond told Goldmine, “’Move in a Little Closer, Baby’ was one of the very first hits that I was involved with. Cass came up to my office to hear the original demo by a New Jersey group called The Victorians. I loved her.”
That summer, Cass had her official Top 40 solo debut with the Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil composition, “It’s Getting Better.” While the A side had a pop flair, its flip side, “Who’s to Blame,” written by Cass Elliot’s sister Leah Kunkel, was performed in a young adult contemporary sound which would be heard in the following decade as some of the ‘60s artists, including Art Garfunkel, shifted in that direction. Piano and strings were featured, and Cass’ vocal delivery was up front with power and beauty as she sang the line, “It’s hard to love someone who isn’t there.”
Flip side: Who’s to Blame
A side: It’s Getting Better
Top 100 debut: June 7, 1969
Peak position: No. 30
1969 ended with another Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil composition, “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” Like its predecessor, this single, which reached No. 36 as the decade concluded, seemed to be a final push for optimism and freedom that the ‘60s generation embraced.
ABC TV showcased Cass’ talent that year on a special called The Mama Cass Television Show. Decades later, also on ABC TV, Cass’ Top 40 hit singles were given a second life on the science fiction series Lost. In seasons two and three, “Make Your Own Kind of Music” was featured on a record player. In season four, “It’s Getting Better” was heard.
In 1970, Cass recorded a duo album with Dave Mason, including the single that they co-wrote, “Something to Make You Happy,” which was released in early 1971.
Back cover of the Dave Mason & Cass Elliot album on Blue Thumb
Cass recorded a half dozen solo albums through 1973, transitioning from Mama Cass to Mama Cass Elliot to Cass Elliot.
Cass Elliot self-titled album on RCA
Since Cass’ passing in 1974, a variety of tributes have been shared, including praise from fellow members of The Mamas and The Papas. In her 1986 book California Dreamin’, Michelle Phillips discussed how Cass encouraged her to sing more, saying she would cover for her on notes if needed, and how strong their friendship was when the band days were through and they were both mothers. Her dedication in the book reads, “To Cass Elliot in loving memory.” In Ted Yates’ 2010 book The 60s and companion interview CD, Denny Doherty stated, “I wouldn’t have gone on this ride if Cass hadn’t been so tenacious, if Cass hadn’t got us our record deal, and if Cass hadn’t had a place for us to stay when we got to Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles singer Laura Pursell, who is working on a new version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” told Goldmine, “Cass Elliot had a timeless voice that broke through the pop pack. I think her pure, unadorned bell-like tone was really a great throwback to Ella Fitzgerald. In all those recordings, you can just feel her joy when she sings.” Melanie fondly recalled riding on a float at a demonstration with Cass and shared with Goldmine, “What a voice! She had everything I admire in a singer, including heart and the ability to communicate from the soul through her songs. Cass’ voice is always recognizable and one that resonates timelessly.” Melanie and Cass both performed at historic music festivals in the ‘60s. Melanie sang on the opening day of Woodstock. The Mamas and The Papas were the final act at the Monterey Pop Festival, less than two months after Cass gave birth to her daughter Owen, who wrote on the Cass Elliot website, “Everywhere I go, it really warms my heart to meet people whose lives my mother touched during her lifetime.”
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.