Biography of Cass Elliot
Cass Elliot – American singer and actress.
Name: Ellen Naomi Cohen
Date of Birth: September 19, 1941
Place of Birth: Baltimore, Maryland, United States
Date of Death: July 29, 1974 (aged 32)
Place of Death: Mayfair, London, England
Occupation: Singer, Actress
Father: Philip Cohen
Mother: Bess Cohen
Spouse/Ex: Jim Hendricks (m. 1963–1969), Donald von Weidenman (m. 1971–1972)
Children: Owen Vanessa Elliot
An American actress and singer, best-known as one of the singers of the renowned ’60s psychedelic pop outfit the Mamas & the Papas, Cass Elliot was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1941, the daughter of Bess (née Levine; 1915–1994) and Philip Cohen (died 1962). After the group (The Mamas & the Papas) broke up, she released five solo albums.
A native of Maryland, Elliot 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, Elliot was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her contribution to the Mamas & the Papas.
Childhood, Family and Educational Life
Cass Elliot, by name of Ellen Naomi Cohen, was born on September 19, 1941, in Baltimore, Maryland, the U.S. 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’s early life was spent with her family in Alexandria, Virginia, before the family moved to Baltimore when Elliot was 15, and where they had briefly lived at the time of Elliot’s birth. Elliot adopted the name “Cass” in high school, possibly borrowing it from actress Peggy Cass, according to Denny Doherty. She assumed the surname “Elliot” sometime later, in memory of a friend who had died.
Elliot studied at George Washington High School and later attended Forest Park High School. While attending Forest Park High School, Elliot became interested in acting. She won a small part in the play The Boy Friend, a summer stock production at the Hilltop Theatre in Owings Mills, Maryland. She left high school shortly before graduation and moved to New York City to further her acting career (as recounted in the lyrics to “Creeque Alley”).
Cass Elliot was married twice in her lifetime. Her first marriage in 1963 was to her bandmate 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 journalist Donald von Wiedenman, heir to a Bavarian barony. Their marriage ended in divorce after a few months. After Elliot’s death, her younger sister, Leah Kunkel (then married to Los Angeles-based session drummer Russ Kunkel), received custody of Owen, then seven years old, and raised her along with her own son, Nathaniel. Owen grew up to become a singer as well and toured with Beach Boys member Al Jardine.
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.
Career and Works
It was during her senior year in high school that Cass Elliot began singing (as well as acting), relocating to New York City by the early ’60s and eventually touring in a production of ‘The Music Man’. With the folk music movement sweeping the nation around this time, Elliot formed the Big Three with other members Tim Rose and James Hendricks, issuing a few underappreciated albums in 1963 (Live at the Recording Studio, The 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 appeared on an “open mic” night at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, billed as “Cass Elliot and the Big 3”, followed onstage by folk singer Jim Fosso and bluegrass banjoist Eric Weissberg (who became famous eight years later for performing “Dueling Banjos” on the soundtrack for Deliverance (1972)). Tim Rose left the Big 3 in 1964, and Elliot and Hendricks teamed with Canadians Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty to form the Mugwumps. This group lasted eight months, after which Cass performed as a solo act for a while. In the meantime, Yanovsky and John Sebastian co-founded the Lovin’ Spoonful, while Doherty joined the New Journeymen, a group that also included John Phillips and his wife Michelle. In 1965, Doherty persuaded Phillips that Elliot should join the group, which she did while she and the group members were vacationing in the Virgin Islands.
To make a long story short, Elliot and Doherty eventually teamed up with the husband/wife team of John and Michelle Phillips, forming the Mamas & the Papas by the mid-’60s. Although the group would only remain together for a few short years, their impact on the rock music world was great, resulting in such classic hit singles as “California Dreamin’,” “Monday Monday,” and “I Saw Her Again,” among others.
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. Elliot was known for her sense of humor and optimism and was considered by many to be the most charismatic member of the group. Her powerful, distinctive voice was a major factor in their success.
After the breakup of ‘The Mamas & the Papas’, Elliot embarked on a solo singing career. Her most successful recording during this period was 1968’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” from her solo album included the songs “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “California Earthquake” of the same name, released by Dunhill Records, though it had originally been released earlier that year on the album ‘The Papas & the Mamas’ Presented By The Mamas and the Papas. These songs went on to peak at #12 and #67 on the US charts. ‘The Mamas & the Papas’ continued to record to meet the terms of their record contract. Their final album was released in 1971.
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 1967, while staying in London, Elliot was prosecuted for stealing bedlinen from an apartment where she had been staying on an earlier visit. She denied responsibility and the case was brought before the West London magistrates’ court, where the charges against her were dismissed in the absence of any evidence. The band had been forced to cancel concerts as a result of the incident. On a return visit to London, Elliot admitted to the audience at the London Palladium that she had taken two sheets, saying “I liked ’em so I took ’em”. She said she had kept quiet because of the way she had been treated in police custody.
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 show 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.’ Elliot acted in the flick ‘Pufnstuf’ in 1970. Two years later, she made appearances on the series ‘The Julie Andrews Hour’.
In October 1968, Cass Elliot made her live solo debut headlining in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, scheduled for a three-week engagement at US$40,000 per week (equivalent to $288,191 in 2018), with two shows per night. Elliot went on a six-month-long crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. According to Elliot, the weight loss led to a stomach ulcer and throat problems, which she treated by drinking milk and cream (and regaining 50 lbs. in the process).
In October 1968, 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.
In 1971, Elliot 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’. 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. Elliot 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. She also sang the jingle “Hurry on down to Hardee’s, where the burgers are charco-broiled” for Hardee’s advertisements.
In 1972, Elliot made three appearances on the variety series The Julie Andrews Hour. Her final appearance on the show was the Christmas installment that aired on Wednesday, December 20, 1972. In December 1978, four years after Elliot’s death, the episode was rebroadcast on syndicated stations as a Christmas special called Merry Christmas With Love, Julie. However, all of Elliot’s solos were deleted from the syndicated prints. In 2009, a complete videotape of The Julie Andrews Hour Christmas Show was donated to The Paley Center For Media in New York, with all of Elliot’s numbers intact.
Awards and Honor
Cass Elliot was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Death and 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, Cass Elliot died at age 32 in her sleep at the London flat where she was staying. According to forensic pathologist Keith Simpson, who conducted her autopsy, her death was due to heart failure. A drug screen that was part of the forensic autopsy revealed there were no drugs in her system. Elliot died in Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place (later Curzon Square), Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London, which was on loan from singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. Elliot was buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
The City of Baltimore dedicated the day August 15, 1973, as “Cass Elliot Day” so as to honor her homecoming. 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.
Elliot’s recording of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” is featured prominently in several episodes of seasons 2 and 3 of Lost as well as season 8, episodes 2 and 9 of Dexter (the later one also uses the title as the episode’s title). Her recording of “It’s Getting Better” is featured in a season 4 episode of Lost. She provided the voice for her appearance on the 1973 episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, “The Haunted Candy Factory.” She also appeared on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated in the episodes “The Secret Serum”, “Pawn of Shadows” and “Dance of the Undead” as a Crystal Cove citizen.
The Crosby Stills & Nash released the video “Daylight Again” and the “Greatest Hits” album to honor Elliot in 1982 and 2005 respectively.