I’ll try and start off a tragic story by interjecting a little bit of gallows humor. When it was reported early on that Mama Cass had died alone in her bed by choking to death on a ham sandwich the line at the time was that if she had actually given the sandwich to Karen Carpenter, they’d both still be alive today.
First of all, let’s dispel that rumor right from the start. Sure, she was what you might call a “voluptuous” lady. In her prime she tipped the scales at over three hundred pounds. A “full figured” gal for sure and yes, she did live the lifestyle that befitted rock stars from the 60’s and 70’s but she did not, repeat, did not die from choking on a ham sandwich.
It was roast beef.
Nah, just kidding there too. All of the coroner’s reports indicate she died of a heart attack.
One rumor about her is true though. She sort of shared a bed with drummer extraordinaire, Keith Moon of The Who. Unfortunately it was four years after her death when Moon was found dead in the same apartment and same bed as Cass. The apartment at the time was owned by singer songwriter Harry Nilsson who had separately lent them the space. In an odd twist, he later sold the apartment to Moon’s band mate and friend, Pete Townshend.
The Making of a Mama
Mama Cass wasn’t always Mama Cass or for that matter, neither was she Cass Elliot. She was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland on September 19, 1941. Always a big girl, she had an apparent uneventful childhood but as she entered her teens she began performing in summer stock productions of various plays and musicals. It wasn’t long afterwards that she packed her bags and headed for the bright lights of New York City and began auditioning for parts on the Broadway stage. Rumor has it she lost out to Barbara Streisand for the lead in the play “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” back in 1962.
Perhaps she found the neon lights too daunting and in 1963 she turned her back on the stage to take up a career in the burgeoning folk music scene in and around Greenwich Village. Her first gig was with a threesome with the ever so original name of “The Triumvirate”. A little while later, that name was changed to the even more original “The Big 3”. They managed to record a couple of albums and even enjoyed a couple of stints on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and some regular appearances on the classic known as “Hootenanny”.
Not long afterwards, a fourth addition to the band was made and The Big 3 quickly nixed the idea of calling themselves “The Big 4” and in a burst of creative impulse had morphed into something that they called "The Mugwumps". That fourth addition was Denny Doherty and he was to have a profound effect on Cass’s life as the years wore on.
Alas, The Mugwumps soon too parted ways. Doherty headed off to the Virgin Islands where he teamed up with John and Michelle Phillips where they were performing under the name “The New Journeymen”. Sensing a need for another vocalist, they called on Cass and not long afterwards, one of the first “supergroups” of the 60’s was born. They called themselves “The Mamas and the Papas”. (For more about them, I highly recommend you read esteemed noder LaylaLeigh fine write up on the subject but I’ll try and cover the circumstances of their break up in brief.)
Basically it boils down to a shit storm of drugs, love and a perceived sense of betrayal between all of the members of the band. While that might’ve been par for the course for most bands in 60’s, the Mamas and the Papas took it to an entirely new level.
After the band broke up, Cass embarked on a solo career. Ironically, her first hit “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” was recorded while she was still with the band and it became her signature song for the rest of her short-lived career.
After getting a couple of prime time television specials of her own, Cass seemed to be a fixture on those early 1970’s variety type show. She seemed to make the transition from the rock and roll stage to the little screen with relative ease. Her outgoing nature and warm personality enabled her to make regular appearances on shows hosted by the likes of Mike Douglas, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett.
When she wasn’t doing television, she could regularly be found in Las Vegas performing on the “The Strip” to sold out audiences.
In 1974, she decided to take her act back out on the road and booked a two week stint at the London Palladium. She was back to doing what she loved and her first couple of shows got rave reviews and she was once again performing to sold out audiences and getting standing ovations.
That all came to a crashing end on the night of July 29, 1974. She was found dead in her room and the ugly rumors about the “ham sandwich” took off like wildfire. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the coroner revealed that Cass’s heart had probably been weakened by her obesity. He concluded that this combined with large fluctuations in her weight due to binge dieting over the years were contributing causes to her death.
But as we all probably know, once you’re the subject of a rumor, it’s especially hard to defend yourself from it. Over the years, the alleged circumstances surrounding Cass’s death have become fodder for many a comedian.
I guess it’s hard to defend yourself when you’re dead.
In 1998, Cass might’ve gotten some measure of revenge, respect or maybe of satisfaction when she and the rest of her band mates from The Mamas and The Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On a purely personal note, when the gray skies and cold of November descends upon Ohio and it seems that they'll last until April, I can still hear her voice on "California Dreamin' and feel a little bit of warmth spread over me.