Cass Elliot, born as Ellen Naomi Cohen and also referred to as Mama Cass, was an American actress and singer. She was best known for being a part of the group ‘The Mamas & the Papas’. A native of Maryland, she started singing and acting in her high school and relocated to New York in the early 1960s. She began her career as a stage actress after leaving high school before eventually pursuing a career as a singer. With the folk music craze engulfing the country around this time, Elliot formed the music group ‘Big Three’ alongside members James Hendricks and Tim Rose. Elliot later collaborated with Michelle and John Phillips, forming the group the Mamas & the Papas in the mid-1960s. This group came up with some major hits, including "Words of Love", "California Dreamin” and “Monday, Monday". After the group’s disbanding, she went on to release five solo albums. Also an occasional actress, she did a handful of small and big screen projects, including 'Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery'. The actress cum singer was married twice in her lifetime and had one daughter. On July 29, 1974, she died of a heart attack, at the young age of 32. In 1998, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her contribution to the Mamas & the Papas.
Childhood & Early Life
Cass Elliot was born as Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father Philip Cohen operated various businesses. Although he faced financial problems initially, he ultimately succeeded in running a profitable lunch wagon business. Her mother Bess was a trained nurse. Elliot had two siblings: Joseph and Leah. Her sister, professionally known as Leah Kunkel, is also a singer and a recording artist.
Elliot spent her early years with her family in Alexandria, Virginia, and later moved to Baltimore at the age of 15. She studied at George Washington High School and later attended Forest Park High School.
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While attending Forest Park, Cass Elliot developed a passion for acting. She eventually won a minor part in a play titled ‘The Boy Friend’ that premiered at the Hilltop Theatre in Maryland.
After leaving high school and moving to New York City to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, she toured with the 1962 musical ‘The Music Man’.
She then met singers John Brown and Tim Rose and the trio started performing as the Triumvirate. In 1963, Brown was replaced by James Hendricks and the group was renamed ‘Big 3’. That year, Cass recorded her first song with the group "Winkin', Blinkin', and Nod" that were released by FM Records.
In 1964, the group was featured in an "open mic" night event at Greenwich Village’s night cub The Bitter End. Also the same year, Tim Rose left the Big 3 and Elliot and Hendricks collaborated with Canadians Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky to form the group Mugwumps. The group performed for about eight months after which Elliot performed solo for a while.
In the mid-1960s, Denny Doherty asked Cass Elliot to become a part of the New Journeymen, a group that also consisted of John Phillips and his wife Michelle. This group was later renamed to The Mamas & the Papas.
With The Mamas & the Papas, Elliot went on to record numerous hits including "California Dreamin'", "Words of Love" and "Monday, Monday". In 1966, the group released its albums ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’ and ‘The Mamas & the Papas’. The group broke up in 1968.
Cass Elliot embarked on a solo career and released the solo album ‘Dream a Little Dream’ (1968) that included the songs "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and "California Earthquake". These songs went on to peak at #12 and #67 on the US charts.
Elliot next came out with her solo album ‘Make Your Own Kind of Music’ in 1969. Then in 1970, she released ‘Mama's Big Ones’ that included the singles "New World Coming" and "The Good Times Are Coming".
In 1971, she came out with ‘Dave Mason & Cass Elliot’, the only album she released with Dave Mason. It charted at #49 on the US Billboard chart. Then in November the same year, she reunited with the other members of The Mamas & the Papas to release the group’s final studio album ‘People Like Us’.
Television & Film Career
Cass Elliot featured in two TV variety specials: CBS’s ‘Don't Call Me Mama Anymore’ and ABC’s ‘The Mama Cass Television Show’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During the early 1970s, she was a regular guest on variety shows and talks shows including ‘The Mike Douglas Show,’ ‘Hollywood Squares,’ ‘The Andy Williams Show,’ ‘The Johnny Cash Show,’ ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ and ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.’
She acted in the flick ‘Pufnstuf’ in 1970. Two years later, she made appearances on the series ‘The Julie Andrews Hour’.
The American singer performed in a music-comedy-western special titled ‘Saga of Sonora’ alongside Zero Mostel, Vince Edwards, Lesley Ann Warren and Jill St. John in 1973.
She made guest appearances in ‘The Tonight Show’ multiple times. She also co-hosted ABC’s ‘The Music Scene’ and appeared in ‘The New Scooby-Doo Movies’, ‘The Red Skelton Show’ and ‘Love, American Style’ among others.
Legal Issues & Controversies
In 1967, during her stay in London, Cass Elliot was arrested for stealing bed sheets from an apartment. This case was brought before the West London magistrates’ court, where the charges against the singer were dismissed due to the absence of any evidence. Later, she herself confessed that she had committed the act.
In October 1968, Cass Elliot was supposed to perform live solo concerts in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace over a period of three weeks. However, on the opening night of the show, she turned up on the stage barely rehearsed and looking sick. She gave a very weak performance that was panned by the audience members.
Following her ill-fated Las Vegas concert, rumors started to spread that Cass Elliot had abused drugs prior to the performance. Later, Eddi Fiegel wrote in a biography that the singer had admitted to a boyfriend that she had used heroin immediately before going on stage.
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Cass Elliot was married twice in her lifetime. Her first marriage in 1963 was to her band mate James Hendricks. The marriage was never consummated and was later annulled in 1968..
The singer cum actress gave birth to her first child, daughter Owen Vanessa Elliot, in 1967. She never publicly identified the father of her baby but later it was revealed that Chuck Day was Owen's father.
In 1971, Elliot married Donald von Wiedenman, a journalist. The couple divorced a few months later.
After her death, her sister Leah received the custody of Owen and raised her along with her own son, Nathaniel. Later, Owen went on to become a singer.
Death & Legacy
On April 22, 1974, Cass Elliot collapsed in the television studio of ‘The Tonight Show’ immediately before her scheduled appearance on the late night show. She was taken to a hospital and discharged after some time.
On July 29, 1974, she breathed her last at her London flat. Later, an autopsy by Keith Simpson declared that the singer had died due to a heart attack. She was just 32 at that time.
She was buried at the Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.
The City of Baltimore dedicated the day August 15, 1973 as "Cass Elliot Day" so as to honor her homecoming.
Elliot was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
The British play and movie ‘Beautiful Thing’ feature Elliot’s recordings.
The Swedish artiste Marit Bergman recorded the track "Mama, I Remember You Now" as a tribute to the late singer.
The Crosby, Stills & Nash released the video “Daylight Again” and the “Greatest Hits” album to honor Elliot in 1982 and 2005 respectively.
Cass Elliot hated being referred to as 'Mama' Cass!
The actress cum singer died in the same room in London, where popular drummer Keith Moon would die four years later.
This singer took the surname “Elliot” in the memory of a deceased friend.