MY MAMA, CASS: A MEMOIR by Owen Elliot-Kugell

Shamefully, the death in London of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot on July 29, 1974, made just a few short paragraphs on page five of the following week’s Melody Maker. She’d just completed a series of concerts at the Palladium near Oxford Circus, the opening night of which MM’s reviewer described as ‘dreadful… a totally depressing evening out’. The heart attack that felled her was misreported as ‘choking on a ham sandwich’, her manager’s idea of a more fitting end to a woman whose generous physique played a macabre role in her too short life.

All of which paints a rather gloomy picture of Cass Elliot but in the almost 50 years since her death she has achieved redemption, of sorts. It’s now acknowledged that Cass, Ellen Naomi Cohen to her family, possessed a fine vocal range and that without her The Mamas and The Papas, the quartet that catapulted her to fame in 1965, wouldn’t have been half as successful had not John Phillips invited her to join the group, albeit reluctantly in light of her appearance. Furthermore, she was a key social networker amongst the musicians that resided in the canyons of Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, instrumental in making introductions that resulted in significant partnerships, most notably John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky who became The Lovin’ Spoonful, and bringing Graham Nash to the attention of David Crosby and Stephen Stills. 

Owen Elliot-Kugell is Cass Elliot’s daughter, an only child. Born in 1967, she last saw her mother leaving JFK airport for that fateful trip to the UK in 1974 and thereafter was raised by her aunt Leah, Cass’s younger sister, and her husband Russ Kunkel, whose CV as a session drummer reads like a list of inductees at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. On hand too as a sort of proxy mother throughout her early years and beyond was Michelle Phillips, now the only surviving member of the Ms&Ps, and it was Michelle who helped trace her father, a bass player called Chuck Day, whose identity was a mystery until the 1980s.

Elliot-Kugell has written an affectionate memoir that does its best to further that redemption but try as she might it’s hard to shake off the feeling that her mother’s greatest moments were with the group she left behind. Albums released before and after the group somehow failed to sell in any appreciable quantity, which Elliot-Kugell invariably blames on ‘poor promotion and marketing’ and there’s a general feeling that Cass never really reached her potential. There were ill-advised career moves, a disastrous appearance in Las Vegas and poor health, attributed to efforts to lose weight, was an issue that never went away. When Cass died she was broke and though her debts were eventually paid off, it wasn’t until the CD era that her estate became solvent.  

It’s a sad story. The first half of the book offers up plenty of family background, followed by the rise and fall of the Ms&Ps and Cass’s subsequent solo career, the information gathered largely from Elliot-Kugell’s talks with many of those who knew and admired her mother. The second half dwells on the author’s childhood and life thereafter, which has had its ups and downs. Included are details of her friendship with the children of other LA musicians, among them Carnie and Wendy, daughters of Brian Wilson, and Chynna, daughter of Michelle and John Phillips, who formed the successful ’90s trio Wilson Phillips. Elliot-Kugell, a singer herself, was unfortunate not to have joined them. She also lays to rest the canard about the ham sandwich – the story was concocted by Cass’s manager to allay speculation that hers was another death from a drug overdose, and in 2000 Elliot-Kugell actually met the journalist who first reported it. “It had been for the protection of my mother’s name and legacy,” she writes. 

Like other children of musicians who’ve passed Elliot-Kugell has found herself accepting awards on behalf of her mother. She was there alongside John, Denny and Michelle when the Ms&Ps were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and in the eight-page photo section there’s a picture of her alongside John Sebastian, Stephen Stills and Michelle when her mum’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star was unveiled in 2022. The book has 262 pages, is set in rather large type and lacks an index. 

        Finally, excuse me while I have a rant. 

        As those familiar with Just Backdated may know, in 2017, through a literary agent, I tried to get a publishing deal for a memoir by Amanda De Wolf, the daughter of Keith Moon, that would have been co-written by myself. It didn’t happen. I was told by numerous publishers that because Mandy last saw her father in 1975 (when she was 12), she ‘didn't know him well enough’ or ‘didn’t spend enough time with him’ to write a book that was substantial enough for publication. In the end I gave up but two years later, with Mandy’s permission, I posted my proposal for the book on this blog*. It has now had 36.6k hits, the second highest number of hits of all the 1,000+ posts on Just Backdated. Many of those who read it, among them no doubt Who fans galore, expressed amazement that the book was never published, which suggests there was a market for it. 

        Owen Elliot-Kugell last saw her mother Cass Elliot when she was seven, and was unaware of the identity of her father until she was 19. With respect to Elliot-Kugell, for all sorts of reasons Keith Moon was far more celebrated than her mother and Mandy’s story, which as well as featuring a father who was rock’s craziest hedonist, involved her overcoming alcoholism, two divorces and a degree of angst with regard to the behaviour Ian McLagan, her mother’s second husband. To my mind, it was at least as worthy of publication as this book. 

        All of the above is not meant as a criticism of My Mama, Cass, merely an observation about the quirks of the publishing world, of which I was once a part. And although it’s unmentioned, there is a morbid Keith Moon connection: the Mayfair apartment where Cass Elliot died in 1974 was the same one where Keith would die four years later. Rant over. 

*https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2019/09/moon-girl-my-life-in-shadow-of-rocks.html. For personal reasons, Mandy no longer wishes to pursue the book. 

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