Michelle Phillips is the last surviving member of The Mamas and The Papas, and, despite her lack of desire to be on stage with the group, she is nonetheless an artist who helped create the sound of California. Born Holly Michelle Gilliam on June 4, 1944, Michelle married fellow group member John Phillips in 1962, before the quartet became a group. The Mamas and The Papas made pop history with their massive hits. But Michelle had “no ambition whatsoever to ever be on stage,” she said.
“I wanted to be John’s wife. I would be in the kitchen making spaghetti or something, and he would say ‘Hey Mich, come in here, sing this part.’ So he’d give parts to me, and whoever else was there, then I’d go back and finish dinner.” According to Michelle, it never occurred to her; it would lead to her actually being in the group.
Michelle described what it was like being on stage, as she stood there with the other three, singing along and harmonizing beautifully with them. While it sounded great, she wasn’t enjoying it. “At first it was very, very hard. I was afraid… I would look around me to Cass, Denny, and John who were loving every minute of it, because this was what they had always wanted, and they had all performed a lot.”
When Michelle first stepped into the studio at Western Sounds with Lou Adler (of Dunhill Records) and the rest of the group, she had never been in front of the microphone before. The beautiful blonde – the true “California Dreamgirl” – is from Long Beach, California. Her family often moved in her early years, and she grew up without a mother…
Michelle’s mother died when she was just five years old, so she was essentially raised by her father, who had to travel a lot for work. And, because of his work commitments, Michelle had a nomadic childhood, which set the stage for the rest of her life. When she hit her teenage years, the family had settled in Los Angeles.
In high school, she proved to be an innately musical, having learned the piano, guitar, and cello. But, she also set her sights on show business. Her original plan was to be a model. She later moved to San Francisco – the hub of the 1960s counter culture – and started making a name for herself with several successful billboard and print ad campaigns. In San Fran, Michelle found herself at the heart of an exciting new world.
It was in July of 1961 that Michelle met a young musician named John Phillips. In those days, John was traveling around California, touring with his folk trio, The Journeymen. John and Michelle’s romance began almost instantly, despite the fact that John was a married man. At that point, John had been married for about five years.
He was also the father of two young kids. That said, he still opted to leave his marriage and build a new one with his 18-year-old lover. The couple married on New Year’s Eve of 1962. Soon after, they headed to New York City. The couple began writing songs together and performed as The New Journeymen. When Marshall Brickman, who played on banjo, left the band, he was replaced by Denny Doherty.
By the time Cass Elliot joined, there was no turning back. Around 1965, they became The Mamas and The Papas and skyrocketed in their fame. Their debut album in 1966, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, featured Monday, Monday, and their signature song, California Dreamin’. Their songs quickly had every American bopping their head and humming along.
But the scene behind the curtains wasn’t such a paradise. Speaking of paradise, during the very brief period of time that The Mamas and The Papas were incredibly popular, between 1965 and 1968, a particular trip that the group made to the Virgin Islands in 1966 proved to be especially revealing. And it was during this trip that ties began to unravel…
As Michelle recalled, they all lived in one tent on the beach. Cass brought the psychedelic “goodies” that the group would raid each morning before snorkeling in the coral reef. It was during this mind-altering vacation that Michelle and Denny started “playing footsie.” Michelle revealed that after a sloppy kiss with Denny, she told her then-husband, John, about her blossoming feelings for their fellow band member.
As Michelle recalls, John shrugged it off, telling her matter-of-factly that she shouldn’t worry too much about it because Doherty had no interest in her. Nonetheless, Michelle entered into an affair with Denny. After a while, John learned that Michelle and Denny’s affair wasn’t simply a figment of her imagination. It was then that he got Michelle kicked out of the group.
The affair threatened to end the group’s career before it even had the chance to properly begin. While the band was recording their second album, The Mamas and The Papas, Michelle found herself in another affair, this time with Gene Clark of The Byrds. And this time, John wasn’t so nonchalant about it.
He went so far as to take legal action to have his wife removed from the group. In June 1966, Michelle was officially fired from The Mamas and The Papas. She was replaced by a vocalist and the producer’s girlfriend, Jill Gibson. While Jill was a talented singer and got along with the rest of the band, she just didn’t have Michelle’s personality and performing ability.
With Michelle suddenly gone, fans started calling for her at the band’s concerts. Jill was ultimately ousted, and Michelle made her way back into the group during the summer of 1966. (On the second The Mamas and The Papas album, vocals can be heard by both Michelle and Jill). In the end, John welcomed his wife back, both romantically and musically.
Despite his wife’s cheating, John was nevertheless willing to let bygones be bygones. In fact, he and Denny even wrote a song about it called I Saw Her Again. John also tackled Michelle’s affair in the song Go Where You Wanna Go, alluding to the sexual liberation of the era.
Considering how Michelle was a slim Californian bombshell and Cass was an overweight girl from Maryland who happened to be the superior singer, one would imagine that the two working together might have led to jealousy. But that wasn’t the case at all. The two were “extremely close,” as Michelle put it.
If you ask Michelle, Cass was a major player in her personal success. “You have to remember that Cass emancipated me,” Michelle explained. “She thought John had way too much control over me, and, to this day, I’ve yet to meet another woman as strong, funny, and fiercely independent as Cass was.” She also noted how Cass was extremely generous vocally, helping Michelle realize her potential in their songs.
The summer of ’67 saw the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival. The three-day event in Monterey, California, brought many major artists to the American public’s attention for the first time, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, The Who, and Ravi Shankar. The Mamas and The Papas were the ones to close the festival.
At the time, Michelle had recently given birth to a daughter, Chynna, and her marriage to John was once again on the rocks. When the band went on a hiatus, the tensions between John and Michelle got to a boiling point. The couple filed for a divorce in May of 1969. By that point, Cass was venturing on a solo career, and the band was nearing its last days.
After splitting with John, Michelle was romantically linked with a number of famous faces. Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Roman Polanski are on the list of her past romances. Let’s not forget her disastrous, eight-day marriage to Dennis Hopper in 1970.
Seeing his ex-wife’s string of flings and romances, John Phillips was heartbroken, and he himself drifted from affair to affair, falling into alcoholism and drug addiction. “I was John’s muse, and now I was gone,” Michelle explained. “I was the person John drew all his despair and joy from, and he didn’t know where to go from there.” John probably also wouldn’t have wanted to hear this…
Michelle said actor Warren Beatty was the love of her life, but he lost her because he just didn’t know how to treat women. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she said, “I was madly in love with him,” but she was put off by what she considered to be his passive-aggressive behavior. As you know, Beatty is now married to Annette Bening.
“I love Annette Bening, and I pray for her every day! She can manage the guy, and I never could. He drove me nuts!” Michelle, now 76, says she “fell off the couch laughing” when Beatty told Barbara Walters on TV that his relationships with women typically ended because they broke up with him! As for her relationship with Jack Nicholson…
After The Mamas and The Papas, Michelle tried to make a transition from music to movies. She started a romance with Jack Nicholson. Michelle said Nicholson was “A lovely guy. Charming, sweet, and fun to be with.” While Nicholson was away shooting, Michelle was given the part of the female lead in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.
She flew off to Peru to start filming, and she and Hopper fell in love and married in late 1970. But in the days following the wedding, Hopper allegedly did something dangerous with Michelle. All she said was that it was “excruciating.” In the end, she flew herself and her daughter back to LA and filed for divorce, eight days after their wedding.
Once back in LA, Michelle picked up her romance with Nicholson and moved into a house next to his. The two dated for about a year. This was before Nicholson’s ultimate coolness. It was also around this time that the one and only Mick Jagger had a big crush on Michelle. Apparently, he was crazy about her.
Her relationship with Nicholson ended after a certain phone call. Michelle claimed that everything went wrong one day when Nicholson got a call, informing him that the woman he always thought was his aunt was actually his mother. As a result, the woman he thought was his mother was, in fact, his grandmother. Michelle said the result of this bomb-dropping moment for Nicholson was his losing all faith in women, including her.
Michelle married radio executive Robert Burch in 1978. “I threw myself at him, as I tend to do,” Michelle admitted. They were together for two years before getting divorced. Then, as she yearned for another child, she met her next beau of six months – the handsome, easygoing actor Grainger Hines. As Michelle recalled, when she was “absolutely smashed on martinis,” she proposed a deal to Grainger.
The deal? If he agreed to father a baby for her, she would take full responsibility for it. “The minute you tell a guy that he doesn’t have to parent, he becomes the best parent,” Michelle stated. The couple had a son, Austin Hines. Their marriage ended, but Michelle didn’t give up on love…
When Michelle made her drastic career change and entered the music industry, she found herself in a number of films, such as 1973’s Dillinger, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. She’s also been in countless TV shows, like Knots Landing. She even dipped her feet back into music when she released Victim of Romance, her only solo album, in 1977.
For Michelle, it was a labor of love. She involved herself in every aspect of production, including the cover’s design. The album was both a critical and commercial failure, though, and marked her last effort in the music industry. After that, she turned exclusively to acting. And she’s been in countless films and TV shows.
By 1999, Phillips began dating Steve Zax, a plastic surgeon. The two were together for 18 years before Zax passed away in 2017. Michelle enjoys acting and left the singing to her daughter Chynna, one-third of the group Wilson Phillips. Michelle took great pride in witnessing her daughter become a pop sensation.
Michelle has also been pleasantly surprised to see how her work with The Mamas and The Papas continues to reach each new generation. “It’s shocking in a sense that the catalogue has been so successful decade after decade,” she said in 2004. “It doesn’t seem to lose its punch, and I’m always thrilled to hear anything they want to play out of it.”
How did she feel when her ex-husband John Phillips died of heart failure in 2001? She felt “sad.” She commented on how he hadn’t spoken to her in several years. “His wife was insanely jealous of our past, and he had taken my name off of his The Mamas and The Papas website.” Nonetheless, despite his wife not wanting her to visit him, she still went to say goodbye at the hospital.
She explained how Lou Adler and Denny talked to his wife, saying, “Look, you can’t take this away from them.” For Michelle, seeing him so frail tore her apart. When he saw her suddenly standing before him, he said to her, “Oh, Mich!” He pulled her to him, gave her a kiss and said, “Mich, I want you to come and see me again.” But he passed away the next day.
Michelle was asked in an interview to recall the first time she ever sang with The Mamas and The Papas. She described how it was probably January 9, 1965, in their apartment in the West Village. “But I don’t remember it, and since we had never put anything together, I think it was really when we went to the Virgin Islands… that we started to sing together and said, ‘Wow, we’re genius!’” she laughed.
Then, when she was asked about how fleeting their moment in the limelight was as a band, Michelle said it felt rather endless. “Believe me, everybody wanted out,” she claimed. But since they owed albums to Dunhill, and Dunhill was sold to ABC, it meant they owed albums to ABC. As Michelle puts it, it was horrible because all they wanted was to get away from each other.
Michelle then explained what it was like when California Dreamin’ came to life in the studio. When they first played their songs for Lou Adler, they sang with one acoustic guitar that John played, and they always used the same studio musicians: Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborn on bass, and Larry Knechtel on keyboards.
Hal, Joe, and Larry were very creative, Michelle said. They would come up with these great parts, creating a sound and atmosphere. They were able to take any musical idea that the group threw at them and give it some color, character and life. Michelle said that California Dreamin’ was the first song they worked on.
She explained how they even let singer Barry McGuire record California Dreamin’ as a token of gratitude for taking them to his producer, Lou Adler. But once the song was coming together, and Barry was laying down his own vocals, Lou took the band out in the hallway of Studio Three at Western and told them, “We’re not giving him this song. This is gonna’ be your first single.”
So they took off Barry’s lead vocals and put Denny’s on instead and added a few more background sounds on it. They asked Bud Shank, from another studio down the hall, to come and play the flute solo. And the rest is history. If you hear Barry McGuire’s second album, you’ll hear California Dreamin’ exactly the same way you heard The Mamas and The Papas’ version. Only Denny isn’t singing the lead.
The Mamas and The Papas gave off this air of being an insulated, protected quartet. When Michelle was asked about it, she described how they were all living together and enjoyed a very close relationship between the four of them. She said how John and Denny were best friends, Cass was head over heels in love with Denny, and Denny and Michelle were having an affair.
She and John were married, Cass and Denny were best friends. Michelle laughed as she laid it all out. “It was like, we didn’t need anybody else in the picture.” In her eyes, the dysfunctional inner dynamics of the group set the stage for the “soap opera drama/romantic entanglements” of Fleetwood Mac.
But was all this inner drama constructive or destructive? According to Michelle, it wasn’t destructive at all; rather, it added an extra spark to their creativity. Songs like I Saw Her Again were about their relationships. It was fuel for the fire, is how she put it. All they could write about was what they were doing.
So what does Michelle Phillips miss most about those days? Although she wouldn’t want to be doing The Mamas and The Papas anymore, she did state that she’s “very proud of what we accomplished, and I have no regrets about it.” With only wonderful feelings about the group and what it taught her, she explained how she learned a lot in such a short journey.
If you’re in the mood for a deep dive on The Mamas and The Papas, take a look…