EML’s Favorite Songs – “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & the Papas

One of my favorite songs of all time is “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas (it ranks #3 behind Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the long version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”). It’s also unquestionably one of the most perfect songs ever recorded. Everything about it is magical: the simple but emotionally compelling lyrics, stellar arrangement, captivating instrumentals – most notably the haunting flute in the song’s bridge, and the gorgeous call and response vocal harmonies of the four band members – John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty & Cass Elliott. Literally everyone I know who’s ever expressed their opinion of this song loves it.

Though they were only together as a band from 1965-68, The Mamas & the Papas released five studio albums and 17 singles, six of which made the Billboard top 10, and have sold nearly 40 million records worldwide. They were immensely popular, and are considered one of the defining music acts of the mid 1960s. The most striking aspect of their music were their incredible vocal harmonies.

“California Dreamin’” was written by John and Michelle Phillips in 1963 while they were living in New York City during a particularly cold winter. Michelle was feeling homesick for her home state of California (she was born in Long Beach and spent her childhood and teen years in Los Angeles and Mexico City). At the time, John and Michelle were members of the folk group the New Journeymen, which later evolved into the Mamas and the Papas with the addition of Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott.

The song was originally recorded by Barry McGuire, with John and Michelle singing backing vocals, and members of the renowned Los Angeles-based session musicians The Wrecking Crew playing instrumentals. Impressed by the Mamas and the Papas, who had recently signed with Dunhill Records, label executive Lou Adler had the track re-recorded with Denny singing lead vocals and paired with the same instrumental and backing vocal tracks, along with a stunning alto flute by Bud Shank and a guitar introduction played by P.F. Sloan. The song was released in December 1965, and ultimately peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following March.

Even though I was a California native who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the song has always strongly resonated with me. I still vividly remember the time I heard it on the radio as a kid while riding in the car with my family from our home in Santa Clara up to San Francisco in February 1966. We were going to “The City” to watch the Chinese New Year’s Parade in Chinatown, but things weren’t looking very promising, as it was a gloomy day with rain in the forecast. To this day, I think of that trip to San Francisco whenever I hear “California Dreamin’”, and yes, it ended up raining on our parade. Many years later, I spent 17 years living in St. Louis, which has a lot of cold, dreary weather in winter, and often found myself California dreamin’ during those periods.

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.
I’ve been for a walk, on a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

Stopped into a church I passed along the way
Well I got down on my knees and I pretended to pray
You know the preacher likes the cold, he knows I’m gonna stay
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day
If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

Though this video of the Mamas & the Papas performing the song for the TV show The Hollywood Palace has them doing a pretty poor lip-syncing job, it does show them in their prime.

15 thoughts on “EML’s Favorite Songs – “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & the Papas

  1. I love that song. When I was a kid it was used in a TV ad over here (clothes, I think) and I loved it ever since. Then, when I was in highschool, we talked about the lyrics and my teacher was surprised that a student even knew the song. Ah… Memories. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. H.G.O

    Something I really love about music is how truly special songs can magically transport you back in time to special moments of your life that are linked to those songs. I bet you can even remember the smells you experienced during that trip in the car with your family as a kid.

    Liked by 1 person

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