California Dreaming: California Dreamin’

You can’t rest on your laurels after a hit as big as Eve of Destruction, and Barry McGuire was quickly back in the studio, recording the album This Precious Time. And this time, as he was such a big star, there was a slightly bigger budget — enough to hire backing singers.

The vocalists who were chosen to provide backing vocals for McGuire were a group who had recently formed from members of two New York folk groups, the Mugwumps and the New Journeymen. McGuire had been friendly with both Cass Elliot of the Mugwumps and John Phillips of the New Journeymen, and when their new group, originally called the Magic Circle but soon to change its name to the Mamas & the Papas, came to LA and started trying to get record deals, he introduced them to Lou Adler of Dunhill Records, who signed them immediately (much to the annoyance of Nik Venet, who had advanced them $150 the day before but had not yet signed the contract).

This new group, even this early on, had troubles — John Phillips was a folk purist and wasn’t at all happy about doing commercial pop music. He was also not especially happy with having Cass Elliot in the band — he thought her voice too low, and that her weight (Elliot was extremely fat) would make it difficult for the band to have any success. Lou Adler and the two other band members, Michelle Phillips (John Phillips’ wife) and Denny Doherty, insisted, however, and so “Mama Cass” was in the foursome that entered the studio to provide backing vocals for McGuire.

The sessions for McGuire’s album involved most of the same people as his single. Lou Adler once again produced, Bones Howe engineered, and a Wrecking Crew rhythm section was augmented by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, and once again they were performing head arrangements — rather than writing out sheet music, the musicians just got told the chord changes and worked their own parts out.

One song that needed more work than most was a song that John and Michelle had written two years earlier, about Michelle missing LA when stuck in New York. The song was good, but a little plain, and so an instrumental bridge, apparently inspired by Wipe Out by the Surfaris, was worked up in the studio, with Sloan playing harmonica, and Sloan came up with a pretty guitar intro. The musicians managed to get it, and three other tracks, cut in a single session, and it was included on the album.

Meanwhile the Mamas & the Papas recorded their own first single, Go Where You Wanna Go, which was released in November 1965, but made almost no impression. McGuire’s album had come out to a similar lack of success, and both John Phillips and Lou Adler thought that California Dreamin’ had hit potential. It was apparent though that McGuire’s vocals, a barking, gravelly, baritone somewhere between Johnny Cash and Eric Burdon, were not appropriate for the song — and not only that, he was singing flat at points.

They had a hit single on their hands, but it needed work. Rather than pay for the expense of a full new session, they decided to use the basic track and backing vocals from the McGuire version. They removed McGuire’s vocals, the backing vocal responses from the first two lines of the second verse, and P.F. Sloan’s harmonica part, and added some new vocals, including a new lead by Denny Doherty.

(The removals weren’t perfect — on the Mamas & the Papas’ version you can still hear McGuire on the first line, in the stereo mix, on the left channel, and the backing vocal part is just audible in the first half of the second verse when listening with headphones — but they were good enough for a mono 45 meant to be heard over AM radio.)

The final touch was the new instrumental break. The harmonica hadn’t worked, but they didn’t want anything as obvious as a saxophone or guitar solo. After batting some ideas around, Phillips and Adler agreed on an alto flute, and Bones Howe contacted session woodwind player Bud Shank, who happened to be playing another session in the same building, and who provided the perfect solo for the track in one or two takes.

The result was something fresh and different, a California record from a New York perspective, as indebted to Simon & Garfunkel as to the Beach Boys. The pop shininess of the song helped the darkness of the lyrics — about a man in a cold, dark, city, pretending to pray in a church where even the priest knows the cold is the only reason anyone’s in there, and considering abandoning his partner — still seem somehow uplifting, and the track was clearly a commercial prospect. Go Where You’re Going To Go was pulled from the market, and California Dreamin’ was issued in its stead (and with the same B-side, to save spending money on more sessions), and quickly made the top five. It went on to be (along with Ballad of the Green Berets) the biggest-selling single of 1966. Folk-rock was obviously here to stay as a commercial proposition, and the only question now was how the established hitmakers would react to it…

California Dreamin’

Composer: John Phillips and Michelle Phillips

Line-up: John Phillips (guitar, vocals), Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, and Denny Doherty (vocals), Barry McGuire (vocals, uncredited), P.F. Sloan (guitar), Steve Barri (guitar), Larry Knechtel (keyboards), Joe Osborn (bass), Hal Blaine (drums)

Original release:
California Dreamin’/Somebody Groovy, The Mama’s & The Papa’s [sic — this is how they were credited on the original single. The apostrophes were dropped from their second album on, and on all compilations], Dunhill Records single D-4020

Currently available on: California Dreamin’ – The Best of The Mamas & The Papas Universal CD, plus innumerable budget compilations

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