California Dreamin’

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California Dreamin’ (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips)

From the “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & the Papas page at Songfacts (link added):

In a 2002 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Michelle Phillips explained how this song came about. It was 1963, and she was newly married to John Phillips. They were living in New York City, which was having a particularly cold winter, at least by Michelle’s standards as she was from sunny California. John would walk around the apartment at night working out tunes, and one morning brought the first verse of the song to Michelle. It was a song about longing to be in another place, and it was inspired by Michelle’s homesickness.

Michelle enjoyed visiting churches, and a few days before*, she and John visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which inspired the second verse (“Stopped into a church…”). John hated the verse, as he was turned off to churches by unpleasant memories of parochial school, but he couldn’t think of anything better so he left it in.

Excerpts from the article ‘California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & The Papas | 1965, by Geoff Boucher, published in the Los Angeles Times, 8 June 2008:

One blustery day, the couple were strolling by the marble spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “I wanted to go in just to see what it looked like, but John wouldn’t go with me,” Michelle recalled. “He had been sent off to a parochial school when he was 7 and, well, he just had very strong negative feelings about the church. So I went in alone.”

That random moment took on new meaning a few weeks later. It was the middle of the night when John, guitar in hand, woke his wife up.

“He undoubtedly had taken a few bennies. I wanted to go back to sleep, but he said I would thank him someday if I got up and worked on it with him.” A few years later, with the Phillipses singing as half of the Mamas & the Papas, that late-night sketch of a song became the evocative pop masterpiece “California Dreamin.’ “

“He had the lyrics for those first eight bars that night,” said Michelle Phillips, the only surviving member of the Mamas & the Papas. “I added the next few lines about the church. He hated it. Just hated it. But he didn’t have anything better.”

In the Boucher article, and elsewhere, Michelle Phillips recounts that it was she who, after being awoken by her husband John Phillips, wrote the lines of the song about the church and the priest. However, in part 5 of a 15 August 1995 interview of Scott McKenzie and John Phillips by L.A. Johnson on Stage 10 of the Paramount Studios (@scottmckenzie.info), Phillips recalls that Michelle’s only contributions to the creation of the song were getting out of bed and writing his words down, saying:

It’s my recollection that we were at the Earle Hotel in New York and Michelle was asleep. I was playing the guitar. We’d been out for a walk that day and she’d just come from California and all she had was California clothing. And it snowed overnight and in the morning she didn’t know what the white stuff coming out of the sky was, because it never snowed in Southern L.A., you know, Southern California. So we went for a walk and the song is mostly a narrative of what happened that day, stopped into a church to get her warm, and so on and so on. And so as I was thinking about it later that night, I was playing and singing and I thought “California Dreamin’” was what we were doing, actually, that day. So I tried to wake Michelle up to write the lyrics down that I was doing. And she said, “Leave me alone. I want to sleep. I want to sleep.” “Wake up. Write this down. You’ll never regret it. I promise you, Michelle.” “Okay.” Then she wrote it down and went back to sleep. [Laughs] And she told me up to this day, she’s never regretted getting up and [laughs] writing it down. Since she gets half of the [credit for] writing of the song for it.

In the book Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas, by Matthew Greenwald (2002), on pages pp. 28-30, Michelle relates that when she made a guest appearance on an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Conan told her that John had made virtually the same claims as in the above recollection when he had appeared on the show a week earlier. She was stunned and hurt to learn that John had told a national television audience that her role in the creation of the song that day had been essentially that of a secretary.**

I have always maintained that he wrote most of it…But for him to say that he woke me up in the middle of the night to have me “write down some lyrics” so that he could give me 50 percent of the publishing is the most absurd piece of fiction that I’ve ever heard. (Greenwald, pp. 28-29)

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The Mamas and the Papas — recorded on 4 November 1965 at Western Recorders, Hollywood; released in November 1965 (according to 45cat.com and rateyourmusic.com) on the single Dunhill 45-D-4020 (also Dunhill D-4020), b/w “Somebody Groovy” — The track was included on their debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Dunhill D-50006 (Mono), DS-50006 (Stereo), released, according to Discogs.com, on 28 February 1966.

features a montage of video clips of lip-sync and live performances by the original band, 1966-1968, and photos (HD)

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(below) features a video and photo montage, with particular focus on the 1967 Ed Sullivan Show lip-sync performance of the song (HD with Spanish subtitles)

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(below) another nice montage; lower quality than in the two above

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The Mamas and the Papas – live at the Monterey Pop Festival, Sunday, 18 June 1967

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Selected covers

The Ventures — from their 1966 LP Go With the Ventures!, Dolton Records BLP-2045 (Mono), BST-8045 (Stereo)

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The Brass Ring, featuring Phil Bodner — issued in September 1966 on the single Dunhill D-4047, b/w “Samba De Orfeo (Black Orpheus)” — This seems to have been the same track featured on the Brass Ring albums Lara’s Theme (1966) and The Dis-Advantages of You (1967), each released on Dunhill Records.

single

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Bud Shank — first track on the 1966 album California Dreamin’, (US) World Pacific WPS-21845, WS-21845, and also issued in 1966 on the single World Pacific 77824

45cat.com suggests that the single World Pacific 77824 (also WP-77824) was issued in May 1966. However, this may be incorrect because according to JazzDisco.org, the session that produced World Pacific 77824 occurred in August 1966. Shank performed the flute solo on the 4 November 1965 recording by The Mamas and the Papas.

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Hugh Masekela – initial track on the 1966 LP Hugh Masekela’s Next Album, MGM Records E-4415 (Mono), SE-4415 (Stereo)

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Bobby Womack — from Womack’s debut studio album, Fly Me to the Moon, Minit LP-24014, released in 1968; also issued in November 1968 on the single Minit 32055, b/w “Baby, You Oughta Think It Over”

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José Feliciano

from his 1968 LP Feliciano!, RCA Victor LSP-3957

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from the television special Bing Crosby Special: Making Movies, originally broadcast on 23 October 1968

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Igginbottom — from their 1969 album ‘Igginbottom’s Wrench, (UK) Deram DML 1051 (Mono), SML 1051 (Stereo)

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Winston Francis — originally released in 1970 on the album California Dreaming, (Jamaica, UK) Bamboo BDLPS 216; also issued on the 1970 single (Jamaica) Bamboo BAM 48, b/w “Soul Stew” (B-side by Jackie Mittoo & Sound Dimention)

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Rosa Maria (Rosa Marya Colin) — originally released in 1988 on the single (Brazil) Estúdio Eldorado ‎ MIX 136.88.0542, b/w “Summertime II (B-side by Rosa Maria and Tony Osanah); also included on the 1989 album Rosa Maria, (Brazil) Philips 838 003-1

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John Phillips — from the 2001 album Phillips 66, Eagle Records WK18854

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Jim Young — instrumental, published 19 June 2013

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Monophonics — from their 2018 album Mirrors, Transistor Sound TSR006 (CD), TSR-006 (12-inch disc)

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* “a few days before” — In the NPR piece it is actually the interviewer who says that the visit to the church had taken place “a few days earlier,” and Michelle Phillips doesn’t mention the time elapsed since that visit. The article ‘California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & The Papas | 1965, by Geoff Boucher, published in the Los Angeles Times, 8 June 2008, on the other hand, suggests that, after the visit to the church, it was “a few weeks later” that the nocturnal “California Dreamin'” songwriting episode took place.

** Michelle also mentions (p. 28) that these appearances on Conan had happened at about the time of John’s liver transplant, either just before it or just after. According to all sources that I’ve checked, the liver transplant was in 1992, whereas Late Night With Conan O’Brien debuted on 13 September 1993. These dates might be considered consistent with her story if John and she were each among the guests on the show in its first season, on different episodes a week or so apart. However, I’ve yet to find evidence of guest appearances, during any season of the show, by either John Phillips or Michelle Phillips.

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selected links:

The Mamas and the Papas:

California Dreamin’ (song):

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