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The tragic story of Mama Cass

Mama Cass spent the last three years of her life doing everything in her powers to shake off that moniker and earn the public’s respect as Cass Elliot. Tragically, as soon as she finally managed to get that monkey off her back and felt accomplished in her own right, Cass passed away during her sleep.

The Mamas & Papas split up in 1968, but Elliot leaned into the Mama Cass persona for the first section of her solo career. She even released albums titled, Bubblegum, Lemonade, and… Something for Mama and Mama’s Big Ones. However, after the group reunited briefly in 1971 to record one final album, Elliot decided to leave those days firmly behind her and reinvented herself as an artist.

It took time to get the wheels turning on her solo career, and, for a while, it looked like she’d forever simply be Mama Cass from The Mamas & Papas. It was an irritable itch that she couldn’t quite scratch, but after years of laborious work, she finally started to see a glimmer of the recognition that she craved so greatly.

In her final interview, Cass proudly said: “I’m independent. I value my freedom to live and love as I want more than anything else in the world. I never created the Big Mama image. The public does it for you. But I’ve always been different. I got into the habit of being independent, and the habit became a design for living.”

However, her life as a solo artist couldn’t have gotten off to a more unfortunate start. She accepted a residency in Las Vegas for some unbeknown reason, which she quit after just two appearances, upset by the parameters of performance laid out for her. It took Cass a while to figure out the kind of artist she wanted to be, and it wouldn’t be until the end when she finally broke free from her past.

Her crowning moment arrived when she sold out a two-week run at The Palladium in the heart of London’s famous West End, and her residency was the hottest ticket in the English capital. Lou Adler, her record producer, was in attendance and later said Cass “was really up. She felt she was opening a new career. She’d finally got together an act she felt good doing – not prostituting herself, but middle-of-the-road people enjoyed it and she enjoyed doing it.”

Following the victorious run, which felt like the start of a bright new chapter in her career, Cass decided to enjoy the lavish lifestyle that London had on offer. She attended a dinner party at Mick Jagger’s house before celebrations spilt over into the next day. In the early evening, she retired to her apartment in Mayfair, which she was renting from Harry Nilsson, and, on July 28th, 1974, Cass Elliot sadly passed away during the night. 

Before that, she telephoned her former bandmate, Michelle Phillips, and Cass couldn’t have been in a better place emotionally. “It was 1974 and Cass was ecstatic that she was going to London to play The Palladium,” Phillips said in 2005. “After she had played two nights there, she called crying with joy telling me that she had got a standing ovation both nights and she had sold out both nights, she was just as happy as I’d ever seen her or heard her.”

Phillips continued: “The following day, I was having lunch at Warner Brothers and a friend of mine came running out with the terrible news that Cass had died in her sleep of a heart attack, it was just unbelievable that she died on the night that she had called me and been so happy and so fulfilled, it was wonderful for her that she had made that leap from Mama Cass to Cass Elliot, and I do know this one thing—Cass Elliot died a very happy woman.”

Elliot had been suffering health problems for a few months and even collapsed in the studio before a scheduled appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It’s unknown how common an occurrence this was in her life and if this was something that she had sadly grown used to.

Her final album, Don’t Call Me Cass Anymore, was released in 1973 and confirmed Elliot’s transformation into a true solo star. After the best part of a decade, the mountain top was back in her eye line, and she could almost taste it.

The Palladium residency should have been the first scene of the film rather than the finale. Elliot was only 32, and with her majestic talent, the possibilities were truly endless. Cass Elliot was on the cusp of iconoclast status for the second time, and this time it would have been even sweeter. 

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