Songwriter John Phillips, who penned “California Dreamin'” and other hits of the 1960s as co-founder of the pop-folk quartet the Mamas & the Papas, died Sunday morning (March 18) of heart failure. He was 65.
Phillips, who helped organize the seminal Monterey Pop Festival and wrote for legendary groups including the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys, passed away at the University Of California Los Angeles Medical Center, a spokesman for the hospital said.
Phillips received a liver transplant in 1992 after years of abusing alcohol and illegal drugs. “It’s like having a new lease on life,” he said at the time of the transplant, which came six months after he stopped drinking. He said he had weaned himself from drugs in a rehabilitation clinic after a 1980 arrest.
Phillips was the principal songwriter for the Mamas & the Papas, who reached the top-5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 six times in 15 months from 1966-1967 with such favorites as “I Saw Her Again” and “Creeque Alley.” In 1966, the group won a Grammy for best contemporary group performance for the No. 1 pop single “Monday Monday.” As one of the organizers of 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, Phillips also helped introduce Jimi Hendrix and the Who to American audiences.
The Mamas & the Papas — Phillips, his second wife Michelle Phillips, Deny Doherty, and “Mama” Cass Elliott — broke new ground by having women and men in one group at a time when most pop bands were all-male or all-female.
The group seemed to embody the look and feel of hippiedom in the mid-’60s. Their hits were largely autobiographical and expressed a dreaminess and optimism, tempered by a dose of weary detachment. “Creeque Alley,” for instance, documents Phillips’ years as a New York folkie and the group’s early days, including their legendary stay on the Virgin Islands — where they lived on the street for which the song is named.
The Mamas & the Papas disbanded in 1968 following John and Michelle’s divorce. Cass Elliott enjoyed some solo success as MaMa Cass, before her death in 1974. John briefly reformed the band in 1982 with Doherty, daughter Mackenzie, and Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane. The foursome toured playing oldies and new Phillips originals.
Several of Phillips’ children have achieved fame. Mackenzie Phillips became an actress and starred in the sitcom “One Day at a Time” in the 1970s until she was fired in 1982 because of a cocaine addiction she later kicked. Chynna, his daughter with Michelle, is a member of the pop group Wilson Phillips with two daughters of Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson. A third daughter, Bijou, is an actress.
Phillips had recently completed work on a solo album, tentatively titled “Slow Starter.” An album he began work on 25 years ago with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards called “Pay, Pack And Follow” is set for release in May.
Phillips was born in Parris Island, S.C. After high school, he moved to New York, where he formed the Journeymen, a vocal group that included Scott McKenzie. Phillips later wrote and produced the No. 4 hit “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” for McKenzie. The pair also co-wrote the Beach Boys’ No. 1 hit “Kokomo.”
After Cass Elliot joined the group that became the Mamas & the Papas, the band moved to Los Angeles, where it was signed to producer Lou Adler’s Dunhill Records in 1965. The band was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1998, and “California Dreamin'” was added to the Grammy Hall Of Fame last month. The group was also inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame last October.
Phillips is survived by his fourth wife Farnaz, three daughters, two sons and two stepdaughters. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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