In September of 1941, Americans were trying very hard to dream of the better things of life, attempting desperately not to pay attention to the massive boot prints that Hitler’s Germany was leaving across the continent of Europe. The Brooklyn Dodgers were on their way to winning their first pennant in 21 years. In the nation’s midsection, a young ballplayer named Stan Musial went 2 for 4 in his first of many major league games for the Cardinals.
In Baltimore, council members were trying to woo the St. Louis Browns to relocate so the city could have a major league team. And just blocks away from the ballpark, Philip and Bess Cohen were about to give birth to the first of two daughters, Ellen Naomi Cohen.
Ellen was always a dreamer. By high school she became enamored with being a singer and actress. Her favorite actress was probably best known for being a panelist on the game show To Tell the Truth, but Peggy Cass caught Ellen’s eye with her role in both Broadway and Hollywood’s version of Auntie Mame. Months before graduation, Ellen’s dreams took her to the Big Apple where she landed a role in the touring production of The Music Man.
She returned to the Baltimore area, finished her high school degree and enrolled in American University. There she took roles in plays and musicals, continuing to dream of one day hitting it big. She connected with a banjo player and a singer to form the group “The Big 3” but found gigs only in small bars and restaurants. Ellen always had an eye for talent and convinced two Canadians to join them and they changed their name to “The Mugwumps.” Of the two, Zal Yanovsky would later assist John Sebastian in founding “The Loving Spoonful” and Denny Doherty joined a group called “The New Journeymen” with newlyweds John and Michelle Philips.
Doherty convinced the Philips that Ellen was exactly the voice they needed to reach their wildest dreams. Philips reluctantly agreed until he heard Ellen sing ... and then he couldn’t wait to form the new band. But with two female vocalists, the name “New Journeymen” just didn’t seem to fit. Having been a part of the “Mugwumps,” Ellen knew that the name could make or break a group and their dreams.
Doherty’s website tells the story of how Ellen was instrumental in coining the group’s new name. He explains that they were all sitting around, flipping channels on the television, brainstorming about names for the group. John was pushing for the name “The Magic Cyrcle,” which no one else liked, but couldn’t come up with anything better. Around 11:30 p.m. they changed the channel to Johnny Carson, and there were members of the motorcycle group, Hell’s Angels, being interviewed. Doherty explains the first words they hear are “Now hold on there. Some people call our women ‘cheap’ but we just call them our Mamas.”
Ellen, who was by then going by her legal stage name Cass Elliot, jumped up and screamed, “Yeah! I want to be a Mama.” To which John replied, “And Papas?” The problem of the name was solved. They immediately raised a toast to the Mamas and the Papas.
Ellen’s dreams of becoming a star were about to intertwine with reality. Her powerful, distinctive voice shaped the sounds of their hits “California Dreamin,” “Words of Love,” and “Monday Monday.” Her sense of humor and her unstoppable optimism made her the group’s most charismatic member. It was not unusual to find her after a concert, talking with dozens of slightly overweight teens at the edge of the stage. “Never stop chasing your dreams,” she would encourage them.
The group’s last album together would include a song that they had been singing for fun for years. Michelle Philip’s father had been friends with Fabian Andre, who had penned the song in 1931. Dozens of artists, including Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and Ozzie Nelson, had covered the song, up-tempo versions written as a dance tune in the Big Band Era. Recorded to honor Andre’s death in 1968, Cass Elliot’s version had a slow, contemplative pace for “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
The song would also be featured on Cass’ first solo album and in many ways was the signature song of her life. Though her life was cut short because of a heart attack at age 32, Cass Elliot was known as a dreamer — California, or otherwise.
Love songs, and life, are all about dreaming.
— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.