John Phillips may easily be called one of the best pop songwriters of the later 20th century. He honed his songwriting and arranging skills with singing groups that gained a modicum of success.
But his crowning musical achievement was the work he did with his '60s group the Mamas and the Papas. Their popularity helped to stem the tide of the "British Invasion" of the 1960s, and bring attention back to American popular music. After a stunningly successful three-year run, the band collapsed under the weight of personal tensions, and seemingly so did Phillips. His later challenges involved battling years of substance addiction and recovering his health and creativity. John Edmund Andrew Phillips was born on August 30, 1935 on Parris Island, SC. He was the son of a career military man, and a homemaker. Phillips' upbringing was troubling and often lonely. Phillips formed several bands while in high school, in Alexandria, VA, and again, after he returned home from an abortive try at college life. He had a minor hit, "Softly," in the late '50s with his group, the Smoothies. Phillips had arranged his songs with Four Freshmen style harmonies, to sing with friends Phil Blondheim (who later changed his name to Scott McKenzie), Bill Cleary, and Mike Boran. In the early '60s, Phillips formed a folk group called the Journeymen with McKenzie, and talented banjo player Dick Weissman. The Journeymen fared well, touring extensively on the folk club and college circuit. The stress of touring strained his first marriage to socialite Susan Adams, mother of his two eldest children, Jeffrey and Laura MacKenzie. (As a teenager Laura, known as MacKenzie Phillips, would become an actress, best known for her role in the 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time.) But the breaking point came when Phillips met an attractive 17-year old blond named Michelle Gilliam during an engagement at the San Francisco coffee house the Hungry i. Phillips eventually divorced Adams and married Gilliam in 1962. When Scott McKenzie and Dick Weissman left the Journeymen in 1964, Phillips formed the New Journeymen, performing with Michelle and banjo player Marshall Brickman. In 1965, Brickman left the group. John had met Denny Doherty, a strong voiced tenor, on the road, and they had become good friends. Doherty filled in at a New Journeymen gig, and he, John, and Michelle developed a distinctive blend of voices. The popularity of folk music was dwindling, and Doherty encouraged his friend to write pop/rock material in the vein of groups like the Beatles. As Phillips began to do that, Doherty suggested they include his friend, Cass Elliot, in their group. Elliot was already a well-established folk singer, having performed with groups like the Mugwumps (with Doherty) and the Big Three. However, John resisted the idea of including Elliot in the act. John, Michelle, and Denny decided to stay in the Virgin Islands, to escape the autumn chill of New York, and to work on a new band sound. Elliot traveled there to be near Doherty. Fueled by the growing quadrangle of romantic tensions in the group (Elliot had a longstanding unrequited love for Doherty, Doherty and Michelle began a flirtation there which would later culminate in an affair), John wrote sensitive yet stirring songs such as "Straight Shooter" and " I Saw Her Again," which allude to his feelings about Michelle's relationship with Doherty. These songs, along with others he wrote that year, would be the first hits for the group, which would be named the Mamas and the Papas. When they returned to the states, John, Michelle, and Doherty drove to L.A., where Elliot was already staying. Bending to her immense vocal talent, John officially made Elliot a part of the group. He got them a live audition with producer Lou Adler, at the time the head of Dunhill Records. Adler was so bowled over that he offered them a deal immediately. Dunhill released their first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, at the start of 1966. In 1966, the group had their big hit with "California Dreamin'," a song about the cold and alienation of a New York winter that eventually topped out at #4. Another cut from the album, "Monday, Monday," soon followed up the charts and reached #1. Huge popularity and financial success followed. John also scored a huge hit with his friend Scott McKenzie's rendition of John's song "San Francisco" in 1967. Another achievement of John's that year was helping to organize the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the cultural highlights of the 60's and the place where Jimi Hendrix burst onto the American scene. Several more albums followed, filled with John's trademark blend of pop, rock, and tin-pan alley influences, and accented by his precise arrangements of stunning harmonies. But personal animosities overwhelmed the Mamas and the Papas, and they broke up in 1968. Two years after after the birth of their daughter, Chynna, in 1968, John and Michelle divorced. (Chynna would be part of the '90s pop group Wilson Phillips). Phillips released his first solo album, John, the Wolf King of LA, in 1970. Self conscious about what he believed to be his limited vocal talents, he intentionally hid his voice in the mix. In spite of the inclusion of several excellent new songs, the album was not a success. Phillips married film actress Genevieve Waite in 1972. The couple had two children together, a son, Tamerlane, and a daughter, Bijou, (who became a model and actress). In the early '70s, Phillips wrote music for a few films (Myra Breckenridge, Brewster McCloud) and created a stage musical called Space, as a vehicle for Waite. However, control of the project was wrestled from him by the producers, who changed much of the material and the name of the show, to Man on the Moon. After opening on Broadway, the production closed after a couple of performances, amidst horrible reviews. This disappointment propelled Phillips further into drug addiction. For years, he made only an occasional foray into work (such as the musical score for Nicolas Roeg's film The Man Who Fell to Earth). In 1977, encouraged by his friend Mick Jagger, Phillips began to write and record a new solo album which Jagger and Keith Richards would produce. But the project was derailed by Phillips' and Richards' increasing use of heroin, and ultimately shelved. Nearly a decade of drug abuse (and some drug dealing) culminated in a narcotics trafficking conviction for Phillips in 1981. After spending a month in jail, he went through rehabilitation, and entered a much more productive phase. He re-formed the Mamas and the Papas, with his daughter Mackenzie Phillips, Spanky McFarlane (of the group Spanky and Our Gang), and Denny Doherty. Throughout the '80s and '90s, John toured with various versions of the group. In 1986, he published his highly candid autobiography, Papa John. He was divorced from Waite in the 1980s. He co-wrote a song for the Beach Boys, "Kokomo," which became a number one hit in 1989. In spite of his sobriety, years of alcohol and drug abuse had damaged Phillips health, and in 1992 he received a liver transplant. In 1995, Phillips married his fourth wife, Farnaz. In 1998, as the Mamas and Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John Phillips appeared with Michelle and Denny Doherty to sing "California Dreamin'" (Elliot having passed away in the 1974 of a heart attack). Phillips suffered other health problems in the late '90s. However, in the year or so before his death, Phillips had a surge of recording activity. He finished the album he had begun with Jagger and Richards, years before. Titled Pay Pack and Follow, it was released in May 2001. He also completed a new solo album called Phillips 66 which was released posthumously in August of 2001. John Phillips died on March 18, 2001, in Los Angeles, CA, of heart failure. ~ Susan Bachner, Rovi