"California Dreamin'"

The Mamas and the Papas,

album cover

Written by John Phillips on a frigid Manhattan night in the winter of 1962, when his girlfriend, Michelle, was homesick for Southern California, "California Dreamin'" is one of the all-time great songs of longing. Phillips came up with its chord structure in the wee hours and woke up Michelle before dawn to get help with the lyrics. In an NPR interview decades later, Michelle remembered telling him about visiting a church when she was out for a walk: "I just loved going into churches. And that's where we got the lyric for the second verse." That verse begins: "Stopped into a church I passed along the way/Well, I got down on my knees, and I pretend to pray."

The song became the group's first single. Released in November 1965, it hit the Top 10 in January '66, even though radio stations in the group's adopted hometown of Los Angeles rejected the song. It wasn't until a Boston station began playing it that the Mamas and the Papas' smooth, folk-influenced harmonies caught on. While it never reached the top spot, the song stayed on the charts for seventeen weeks and propelled the group into stardom.

Another measure of the song's incandescence are the distinctly different interpretations it has inspired over the years: Jose Feliciano's 1968 version played up the song's melancholy, while Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel made it a platform for wriggling improvisation on Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs. Queen Latifah, meanwhile, sang it as a brassy production number on The Dana Owens Album. The original remains a marvel: The Mamas and the Papas were studio newbies when they recorded "California Dreamin'," but they knew how their four beautifully meshed voices lift a simple feeling—homesickness—to the realm of great art.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1965, Dunhill
Appears On: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
Next Stop: Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
After That: The Grass Roots: The Grass Roots Greatest Hits
Book Pages: 471–472

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