The Mamas and the Papas had had a rough time since the release of California Dreamin’. While they’d continued having hits, their personal lives had been in turmoil. Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips had had an affair which had nearly torn the band apart — John Phillips was incensed that his wife was sleeping with his friend, while Cass Elliot had been upset that Michelle Phillips, who was more conventionally attractive than Elliot and “could have any man”, had been with Doherty, with whom she was in (unrequited) love.
This being the sixties, and the time of the hippie movement, the band had taken a “papas before mamas” approach, and had thrown Michelle out part-way through the recording of their second album, The Mamas & The Papas, replacing her with Jill Gibson. Gibson had co-written and performed backing vocals on several of Jan & Dean’s records, and had been Jan Berry’s girlfriend, but was currently at a loose end, and had enough vocal and physical resemblance to Michelle that she could slot into the band easily. Sadly for “Mama Jill”, though, John and Michelle Phillips reconciled three months later, and Michelle returned to the band, adding new vocal tracks to songs that had already been recorded with Gibson.
This reconciliation seems to have made the band at least temporarily more comfortable with each other — John Phillips has been quoted as saying that the chemistry of the band was never right without Michelle — and when sessions began for their third album, Deliver (the name being a sly reference to the fact that Cass Elliot had just given birth — something that was kept out of the newspapers, as being an unmarried mother attracted a great deal of stigma at the time) the feeling was one of nostalgia, with the band recording songs they’d loved when they were younger, such as Twist And Shout and Dedicated To The One I Love, although Michelle Phillips’ suggestion that they record a cover version of I’m A Hog For You Baby was met with bemusement.
This nostalgia also led to what would turn out to be the band’s last US top ten single [FOOTNOTE: Dream a Little Dream of Me, from their fourth album The Papas & The Mamas, made the top ten, but the single was released as by “Mama Cass, with the Mamas & the Papas”, reportedly much to John Phillips’ displeasure.], Creeque Alley. This was one of three collaborations between John and Michelle Phillips on the album (the other five originals were John Phillips solo compositions), and took a nostalgic look at the origins of the band in the folk scene a few years earlier.
Oddly, the song’s lyrics concentrated more on Doherty and Elliot than on the writers, talking of their time in the Mugwumps with John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Every verse ended with a slight variation on the lines “McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher in LA, you know where that’s at/And no-one’s getting fat ‘cept Mama Cass”, with (Roger) McGuinn, (Barry) McGuire, and Elliot’s circumstances changing slightly as the story went from the band and their friends as starving folkies (when Elliot was the only one “getting fat” because she was the only one with a regular paying gig, although the line is also obviously a hopefully-affectionate dig at her obesity) to the present, when “California Dreaming is becoming a reality”.
The album version of the song is a fairly standard acoustic-driven harmony singalong, but the single is something rather different. I’ve been unable to confirm this, but I strongly suspect someone (probably producer Lou Adler) was inspired by Winchester Cathedral [FOOTNOTE: A massive hit by the studio group The New Vaudeville Band, now mostly forgotten, which managed to beat Monday Monday, Last Train To Clarksville, Eleanor Rigby and Good Vibrations to the Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Grammy award, in possibly the greatest awards travesty of all time.] and wanted to put out their own 1920s vaudeville pastiche with a place name for the title.
Whether that was the motivation or not, the single had horns and strings added which turned the hootenanny feel of the album track into something that almost had a feel of Dixieland about it, building through the song in a woozy, speakeasy feel, with honky-tonk piano and riffing call-and-response horns.
The result tapped into a widespread nostalgia for a time that was closer to the 1960s than the 60s are to us — by the middle of 1967, almost every band would be recording 1920s-pastiche tracks. The Mamas & the Papas’ last big hit had showed that by looking backwards, they were looking forwards.
Composer: John & Michelle Phillips
Line-up: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty (vocals), Jules Chaikin, Tony Terran, Ollie Mitchell (trumpet), Richard Leith, Richard Hamilton, Lew McCreary (trombone), Larry Knechtel (keyboards).
The AFM sheet for this song I’ve been able to find only lists the horn and keyboard overdubs for the single version, but personnel for the album Deliver, most of whom probably played on the track, included John Phillips (guitar), Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Joe Osborn (bass), “Doctor” Eric Hord (guitar), P.F. Sloan (guitar), Gary Coleman (percussion), Jim Horn (flute)
Original release: The Mamas and the Papas Deliver, The Mamas and the Papas, Dunhill D 50014
Currently available on: All The Leaves Are Brown: The Golden Era Collection, Geffen CD. NB this manufactured-on-demand double CD set orderable from Amazon.com is, as far as I can discover, the only place in which the single version of this track is available, as opposed to the very different album mix, which shows up on most other compilations.