Hello there! This week’s blog post entry is California Dreamin’, a great pop song with a fascinating history. We will first discuss the first recorded version with Barry McGuire on lead vocals, backed by The Mamas & the Papas. We will then review the most famous version of that song by The Mamas & the Papas; and we will finish by discussing a cover by Bobby Womack.
Barry McGuire and California Dreamin’:
Barry McGuire was a singer-songwriter who became one of the earliest folk-rockers. Born in 1935 in Oklahoma City, Barry initially worked as a commercial fisherman and pipe fitter before beginning a musical career.
McGuire joined up with Barry Kane to form the duo Barry and Barry. They performed at various California clubs until they landed at The Troubador in Hollywood. Below is a photo of Barry McGuire circa 1969.Embed from Getty Images
In L.A., both Barrys joined the New Christy Minstrels. McGuire found himself singing lead on several songs by that group. In 1963, McGuire and New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks co-wrote the song Green, Green that became the NCM’s biggest hit, featuring Barry’s instantly recognizable, raspy voice as the lead for that oversized folk ensemble.
For a time, Barry continued with both his solo career and as a member of the New Christy Minstrels. Then in 1965, McGuire got his big break. He took the song Eve of Destruction, written by P.F. Sloan, and turned it into a #1 hit record.
Eve of Destruction was a dark and ominous song suggesting that American society, or perhaps also the world, was on the verge of being torn apart. The song pointed to the standoff between superpowers possessing nuclear weapons, bitter racial disputes surrounding the civil rights movement, and hatred between different countries.
Does all of this sound familiar? I have a feeling that Eve of Destruction could be re-released today and be as relevant as ever. Anyway, that song shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts, displacing Help! by the Beatles from the top spot.
Barry McGuire’s version of California Dreamin’ has a curious history. Not only was Barry a good friend of both John Phillips and Cass Elliott, but in 1965 McGuire had signed a contract with Dunhill Records. So he arranged an audition for the Mamas and the Papas with Lou Adler, who signed the group to a Dunhill record deal.
In return, the Mamas and the Papas provided McGuire with backing vocals on his second album This Precious Time. One of the songs on that album was California Dreamin’. That song had been written by John Phillips in late 1963, when he and Michelle were suffering through a cold spell in New York.
Apparently the tune came to John in a dream, and he woke Michelle up to help him with the lyrics. The song vividly describes a person longing for the warmth of California in the midst of a New York winter.
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day
Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher likes the cold
He knows I’m gonna stay
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day
So here is the audio of Barry McGuire singing California Dreamin’. As you can see, John Phillips had worked out essentially the final arrangement for the song. You can hear the Mamas and the Papas in the background singing harmony, while much of the instrumental backing is provided by the great West Coast session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.
However, this version of California Dreamin’ is rather jarring. The iconic guitar intro leaves you anticipating Denny Doherty’s vocals, but instead you get Barry McGuire. Although McGuire’s rough and ragged vocals were perfect for his one big hit Eve of Destruction, here his vocal treatment does not work at all.
John Phillips must have realized this, because a short while after the song was taped he wiped McGuire’s vocals from the recording and substituted vocals by himself and Denny Doherty, while leaving the original instrumental and vocal backing tracks. Phillips made one additional change, replacing McGuire’s harmonica solo with an alto flute solo by Bud Shank.
Barry McGuire was understandably pissed that his buddies had wiped his vocals and re-recorded his song. It seemed particularly ungrateful after he had personally arranged the audition with Dunhill Records that provided The Mamas and the Papas with their first big record deal.
The final blow was that Barry’s album This Precious Time, containing his version of California Dreamin’, was not issued until December 1965. However, the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ had already been released in fall 1965.
One interesting note: it is claimed that if you listen carefully to the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’ (in the left headphone), you can just barely hear Barry McGuire’s vocals, which were not completely wiped from the recording. Note: I have tried this and was unable to hear Barry.
As it turned out, Barry McGuire was a one-hit wonder. After his smash success with Eve of Destruction, McGuire never again had a song reach the Top 40 in the pop charts.
McGuire did some acting, appearing in the James Coburn film The President’s Analyst, and also spent a year in the Broadway cast of the musical Hair. In 1971, McGuire became a born-again Christian and spent the remainder of his career recording contemporary Christian music.
Here are Barry McGuire and Terry Talbot in a live version of California Dreamin’. This takes place at the concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival.
McGuire recounts how the Mamas and the Papas got their name, and then reprises the story of his vocals being erased from California Dreamin’. Not surprisingly, McGuire and Phillips did not speak for several years after this episode. Barry otherwise performs the song in good humor.
At present, Barry McGuire and his wife live in Fresno, California, and spend some of each year in New Zealand (his wife’s original home). Barry, all the best to one of the original folk-rockers.
The Mamas & the Papas and California Dreamin’:
We initially discussed The Mamas and the Papas in our earlier blog post on their cover of the song My Girl. Here we will briefly review their career.
The Mamas and the Papas were formed from the remnants of two folksinging groups. John Phillips and Michelle (Gilliam) Phillips were members of a folk group called The New Journeymen, while Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott were in a folk-rock band The Mugwumps.
As a big folk music fan, I caught a live concert of The New Journeymen in early 1965. I thought they had a promising future. Well, the individual performers did, but not in this particular ensemble. Here is a photo of the New Journeymen; L to R John Phillips (believe it or not), Michelle Phillips and Marshall Brickman.Embed from Getty Images
The New Journeymen were managed by Frank Werber, who as manager of The Kingston Trio was one of the most influential figures in folk music. Legend has it that Werber intended to recruit John Phillips to the Kingston Trio in the event that group broke up. Dave Guard was thrown out of the Kingston Trio soon afterwards; however, Phillips chose to remain with the New Journeymen.
John Phillips subsequently wrote the autobiographical song Creeque Alley about the history of the Mamas and Papas, that opens with
John and Michie were gettin’ kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind.
Actually, that statement is rather inaccurate, as John was loath to switch from folk to pop but was eventually persuaded by the other group members.
While we’re on the subject, the song Creeque Alley prominently mentions Barry McGuire several times, e.g.,
McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin’ higher
In L.A., you know where that’s at
Below is a photo of the Mamas and the Papas in London, 1967. L to R: Denny, Cass, John and Michelle.Embed from Getty Images
Initially, John was seriously opposed to bringing Cass into the group. He argued that Mama Cass’ weight would distract from the other, more svelte bandmates, and that her personality clashed with his.
John even argued that Cass’ voice was too low for his arrangements. A widespread rumor is that Cass was hit on the head by a copper pipe in a construction zone. Apparently that accident caused her vocal range to increase by three notes, which allowed her to join the Mamas and Papas. But many believe this was simply an excuse cooked up by Cass to conceal the real reason John didn’t want her, namely that she was too fat.
In any case Michelle, Denny and producer Lou Adler argued strongly for including Cass, and she eventually joined the group. In spring 1965 the band traveled to the Virgin Islands to rehearse their act. Folk-rock was something new for John Phillips, who had previously been a “straight” folksinger (acoustic guitar, banjo, no electric instruments or drums).
Although initially reluctant to branch out to pop music, John Phillips discovered that he had real talent for writing and arranging. He was the musical genius behind the group, blending the four voices in novel and interesting ways, and combining this with innovative instrumental mixes. John and Michelle’s background vocals were a perfect fit with Denny’s smooth delivery and Cass’ marvelous, resonant voice.
As noted earlier, the Mamas and the Papas released California Dreamin’ as a single in fall 1965. By March 1966 the song had peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and California Dreamin’ was rated the top pop song of 1966. Making Denny the lead vocalist, and inserting a flute solo, were touches of genius from John Phillips.
Here are The Mamas and the Papas in a live performance of California Dreamin’.
This took place at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. This was a seminal event in rock music history. The event, one of the first big rock festivals, kicked off 1967’s ‘Summer of Love.’ John Phillips, Lou Adler and a few associates threw the event together in about 7 weeks’ time, and produced a memorable three-day music-fest.
Monterey Pop introduced several performers who would become rock superstars. American newcomers Janis Joplin and Otis Redding electrified the crowd. And Monterey Pop marked the first U.S. performances of artists such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar.
The Mamas and the Papas were the last group to appear at the festival. Their performance has been generally rated as sub-par. The group argued that they had spent so much time organizing the event that they had not practiced enough.
Well, I don’t think their rendition of California Dreamin’ is that bad – what do you think? You can clearly enjoy John Phillips’ brilliant arrangement and the close harmonies from the quartet. Here, the iconic flute solo is replaced by a guitar solo. Overall, I quite enjoy this performance.
Clearly, the sound of the Mamas and Papas was strongly dependent on sophisticated instrumental arrangements and the brilliant balance that could only be achieved in the recording studio. After Monterey, it is difficult to find a live performance from the Mamas and Papas. Even in their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, which for many years insisted on live performance, the Mamas and Papas are simply lip-synching to their records.
At their best, The Mamas and the Papas produced beautiful music together. Songs like California Dreamin’ and Monday, Monday brought a fresh new perspective to pop music and established the group as legitimate superstars.
For a brief shining moment, it appeared as though the Mamas and Papas might continue indefinitely as pop icons. However, if the Mamas/Papas were a family they would be labeled ‘super-dysfunctional.’ The group’s personal saga would be considered too over-the-top for a daytime soap opera.
Unfortunately, the group was unraveling from the moment they became famous. An initial jolt was Michelle’s affair with Denny, which began in 1965 and continued for some time before being discovered. To make matters even messier, Denny was sharing a house with John and Michelle at the time. Worse still, Mama Cass had been silently in love with Denny for years.
Although John managed to patch things up after Denny’s affair with Michelle, in 1966 John found that Michelle was having an affair with Byrds band member Gene Clark. For John this was the last straw, and he persuaded the others to expel Michelle from the band.
For a short time Michelle was replaced by Jill Gibson; however, Gibson did not have Michelle’s charisma and the group soon reverted to their original lineup. As a result no one knows whose vocals, Jill’s or Michelle’s, appear on various tracks of the group’s second album.
John then built a recording studio in the attic of his house, and did most of his work there. But John’s increasingly serious addiction issues made it difficult to record their albums. The group members would frequently record their tracks individually, only mixing the separate vocals in later sessions.
In 1968 the Mamas and Papas began a European tour, but abandoned it as the group was clearly dissolving. They patched together a final album or two to satisfy contractual arrangements, but the tracks were all recorded separately. A toxic brew of messy love triangles, personality problems and addiction issues dissolved a once-brilliant partnership.
Following their breakup, the members of the Mamas and Papas tried to launch solo efforts while dealing with their addiction issues. Cass Elliott had the most successful solo career, scoring a few hit singles. However, in 1974 while on a tour of London, Elliott died of a heart attack. I had always believed that she choked to death on a ham sandwich, but apparently that was simply ‘fake news.’
Denny Doherty pursued a largely unsuccessful solo career, but after returning to his native Canada he managed to secure acting parts in several TV shows. Doherty died in 2007 after suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Michelle Phillips, the only surviving member of the Mamas/Papas, had a solo singing career that also faltered, but she found success as an actress and appeared in several acclaimed movies.
John Phillips kept singing and writing, though his major success came from producing records for other artists. However, his later work was severely hampered by persistent addiction issues.
John Phillips stayed off heroin, but remained addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and pills, as did his daughter.
John Phillips died of heart failure in 2001.
Mackenzie Phillips subsequently published a memoir claiming that she had an incestuous relationship with her father for many years – ewwww! This is still a highly contested issue. Mackenzie’s half-sisters support her story, while her step-mothers Michelle Phillips and Genevieve Waite strongly deny it.
The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Here is video of John, Michelle and Denny performing California Dreamin’ at their Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
It’s great to see the three remaining Mamas/Papas performing together again. It is sad that Mama Cass is no longer with them, and apparently there was still significant friction between John and Michelle, though you wouldn’t know it from the video.
We will always remember their career as resembling a supernova, a blazing light that suddenly appears in the sky but rapidly fades out. But what a brilliant glow while they lasted!
Bobby Womack and California Dreamin’:
We initially discussed Bobby Womack in an earlier blog post on his song It’s All Over Now. Here we will briefly review his life and career.
The R&B singer and songwriter Bobby Womack was born in 1944 and passed away in June 2014. Bobby grew up in poverty in Cleveland. He recalls
that the family would fish pig snouts out of the local supermarket’s trash … His mother told him he could “sing his way out of the ghetto.”
Bobby was pretty much a child prodigy, recording his first song at the age of 10!
He initially gained attention as a singer-songwriter for his family group The Valentinos, that included brothers Cecil, Harry, Friendly Jr and Curtis. The group was managed and mentored by the great Sam Cooke, and Bobby also worked as Sam’s lead guitarist.
Like Cooke, the brothers originally started as a gospel quintet but then crossed over to R&B. It was likely a difficult personal decision to move from God’s harmonies to “the Devil’s music,” but rock ‘n roll benefited greatly from the spirit and style infused from gospel.
Below is a photo of Bobby Womack circa 1975.Embed from Getty Images
Some friction ensued when Sam Cooke convinced The Valentinos to make Bobby the lead singer, replacing his brother Curtis. After a promising start with the song Looking for a Love, a pop re-tooling of one of the group’s gospel numbers, Bobby and his sister-in-law Shirley Womack wrote It’s All Over Now in early 1964.
That song (It’s All Over Now by the Valentinos featuring Bobby Womack, produced by Sam Cooke) became a minor hit, just denting the Billboard Top 100. However, the tune became a genuine blockbuster when it was covered a couple of months later by a young British Invasion group, The Rolling Stones.
Bobby was initially upset that some white upstarts had stolen his song. However, after he started receiving royalty checks from the Stones’ record company, Womack is reported to have told Mick Jagger “you can have any song of mine that you want.”
The song California Dreamin’ has been covered by numerous groups, including The Beach Boys, R.E.M., Jose Feliciano, the Carpenters, the Four Tops, and George Benson.
Bobby Womack recorded his cover of California Dreamin’ in 1968. It was a cut on his first solo album, and became Womack’s first big hit. Here is a video clip of Bobby Womack in a live performance of California Dreamin’.
This is actually a medley of two songs, California Dreamin’ and Womack’s autobiographical Across 110th Street. It features just Bobby with an acoustic guitar.
Bobby is left-handed but when he was first given a right-handed guitar, he simply turned it upside down. If you watch carefully, you can see that he is playing a right-handed guitar backwards, just like Jimi Hendrix.
I love Bobby Womack’s gritty voice and his great R&B vocals. He takes this great Mamas and Papas pop song and converts it into an impressive soul song. There is a lot of creativity in his cover.
Womack’s subsequent career had more than its share of ups and downs. A first major career blow occurred when Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel in December 1964. In the aftermath, the Valentinos disbanded and their record company folded.
Controversy dogged him when Bobby married Sam Cooke’s widow Barbara Campbell just 3 months after Sam’s death. It didn’t help that Barbara later divorced Bobby after she discovered him in an affair with her daughter Linda (Barbara fired a shot at Bobby upon catching the two of them in bed).
Although Bobby remained in demand as a session musician and songwriter, and produced a couple of seminal albums in the 70s, his solo career often languished. He would occasionally release a mid-range hit, but then continue for a long fallow period before scoring another song.
His well-publicized problems with drugs quite likely contributed to this – after dealing with a cocaine addiction for 2 decades, Womack went into rehab in the late 1980s. Here is Bobby recounting his lifestyle in the 60s and 70s:
“I was really off into the drugs. Blowing as much coke as I could blow. And drinking. And smoking weed and taking pills. Doing that all day, staying up seven, eight days. Me and Sly [Stone] were running partners.”
Well, in terms of role models, you could not choose worse than Sly Stone! I haven’t seen a cause of death listed, but Womack reportedly suffered from diabetes, prostate cancer, heart disease, colon cancer, pneumonia and Alzheimer’s.
Geez – talk about reasons for singing the blues! What a tough life, but what a talented, gifted musician.
Although he never achieved lasting fame as a solo artist, Bobby Womack was in great demand as a songwriter and session guitarist. Bobby Womack played guitar and wrote songs for artists such as Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone and Janis Joplin, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Presumably, he is now up in “rock and roll heaven.”