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Mamas and the Papas Take on Some New Faces and Are Out to Have Fun

January 10, 1990|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — A caveat for anyone planning to attend the Mamas and the Papas' concert Thursday night at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach: This isn't your typical resurrected oldies group from the 1960s.

Only "Papa" John Phillips is left from the original vocal quartet that in the mid-60s produced such classic folk-rock hits as "California Dreamin"', "Monday, Monday," "I Saw Her Again," and "Dedicated to the One I Love."

Replacing the late Cass Elliot is Spanky McFarlane, who with Spanky and Our Gang scored her own string of folk-rock hits in the late 1960s, including "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," "Lazy Day," and "Like to Get to Know You."

Replacing Denny Doherty is Scott McKenzie, whose 1967 chart-topper, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),"--written by Phillips--was once the anthem of the flower-power movement.

Completing the lineup is Mackenzie Phillips, John's daughter and formerly of the television sitcom "One Day At a Time."

"It really is a mini-revue," said Phillips. "Aside from the Mamas and the Papas material, Spanky does some old Spanky and Our Gang stuff, Scott does 'San Francisco' and some songs he wrote for Anne Murray, and Mackenzie does some 'One Day At a Time' shtick.

"The whole thing is just for fun. Whenever we feel the need to go out, whenever I get bored sitting around my house, we do a quick tour and everyone has a really good time."

It didn't start out that way. After all, Phillips has had plenty of fun since the original Mamas and the Papas broke up in 1968. He scored several movies, including "Myra Breckinridge" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth," but by the middle 1970s he had become idle, living off his $100,000-a-year royalties and cultivating a nasty drug habit that he finally kicked in 1980.

So when he first decided to put the Mamas and the Papas back together in 1981, Phillips said, he had a much loftier objective than to simply continue having fun.

"I wanted to record again," he said, "to pretty much take up from where we had left off."

Those plans never materialized. Of the two other surviving band members--Elliot had died in 1974--only Doherty agreed to a reunion. Michelle Phillips, John Phillips' ex-wife, politely declined.

"Frankly, I didn't really want her to come aboard," Phillips recalled. "There was too much pressure, too much fighting between myself and her--she didn't like Genevieve (his new wife), and Genevieve didn't like her.

"Still, I gave her the courtesy of asking, knowing she would say no. And when she did, I turned to Mackenzie, who like me had just overcome a drug problem. Not only was she a good singer, but at that point she needed some strong parental guidance."

Finding a suitable replacement for Elliot was a lot harder, Phillips recalled.

"I auditioned about 200 people, but none of them seemed right," he said. "Finally, a good friend called me up and said, 'You'll never guess what happened. Spanky McFarlane just left my office. She's been on the road with Willie Nelson and she just might be the one you're looking for.'

"I immediately said, 'Of course she is.' Spanky and Cass had been close friends even before the Mamas and the Papas, and their voices were really quite similar. So I called her up and the first thing she said to me was, 'Thanks--it only took you two months to think of me.' "

After several months of rehearsals, the two new Mamas and the two old Papas began touring, amid much acclaim. As they continued to enjoy success on the road, Phillips said, the idea of recording again became increasingly less attractive.

"I began thinking to myself, they're going to say Spanky doesn't sing as good as Cass, or John doesn't write songs as well as he used to," Phillips said. "So I decided to limit our activities to touring, and having as good a time as we possibly could."

Two years ago, Doherty quit and was replaced by McKenzie, whom Phillips had known since the early 1960s when they sang together in the Smoothies, a vocal group that later evolved into the Journeymen.

"I actually picked him up four years ago to play guitar in our backup band," Phillips recalled. "He was doing yardwork in Virginia Beach, riding his bicycle, as healthy as a hummingbird, and then I came along and ruined his life once again.

"When Denny quit, it was only natural to move (McKenzie) up to the front line. I remember the night we told him, he almost collapsed on the spot. Denny had to go up and say, 'You can do it'--he never had any confidence in himself."

Despite this patchwork makeup, Phillips maintains the new Mamas and the Papas sound surprisingly like the old Mamas and the Papas. "Physically, it's nothing like it was, but musically, the similarity is amazing," Phillips said. "In fact, live, we sound more like we sounded in the studio than we ever did in the 1960s.

"Re-creating what we did in the studio wasn't possible until modern equipment came together--echo machines, things like that. On top of that, we have four very good singers who love the challenge--and who love to sing."

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