John Phillips Biography

Singer (1935–2001)
Singer John Phillips was a member of the popular 1960s folk rock band The Mamas and the Papas, along with Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips.


John Phillips was born August 30th 1935 in Parris Island, South Carolina. In 1965, Phillips and his wife traveled to the Virgin Islands. Friends Cass Elliot and Dennis Doherty joined them there. The group turned into a quartet, named themselves The Mamas and the Papas, and landed a recording contract. After the group—and John's marriage—dissolved, his life went into a tailspin. Phillips died of heart failure on March 18, 2001 in Los Angeles at age 65.

Early Life

Singer John Edmund Andrew Phillips was born on August 30th 1935, in Parris Island, South Carolina. His father was a retired United States Marine Corps officer who struggled with alcohol addiction, leaving his mother and sister to raise him.

Phillips rebelled at an early age, and his music played a key role in his defiance. He and several mischievous high school friends formed a band together as The Del Ray Locals. Although the group didn't last long, Phillips left the band eager to create a unique musical sound. After trying his hand at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a basketball player at Hampden-Sydney college, he left formal education for good in the late 1950s and headed for New York.

It was in New York that Phillips met two other singers, Dick Weissman and Scott McKenzie. The three formed a folk group called The Journeymen. The group met with great success, creating three albums and even making several television appearances. But the group soon dissolved over creative differences, and Phillips used the opportunity to create a new group, The New Journeyman with his wife, aspiring model Michelle.

The Mamas and the Papas

In 1965, Phillips and his wife traveled to the Virgin Islands to work on material for The New Journeymen. Friend Cass Elliot, a member of the band The Big Three, and Dennis "Denny" Doherty, who previously performed with The Halifax Three, joined them there. The group turned into a quartet, named themselves The Mamas and the Papas, and landed a recording contract with Lou Adler's record label, Dunhill.

Working with Adler as their producer, The Mamas and the Papas went into the studio. Their first single was supposed to be "Go Where You Wanna Go," which John reportedly wrote in response to Michelle's affair with another man. Adler, however, decided that "California Dreamin'" was a better choice. The song took off, making it to the No. 4 spot on the pop charts in March of 1966. Music critics and fans were won over by its melancholy lyrics and lush sound.

The Mamas and the Papas scored their first No. 1 single in May with "Monday, Monday." While popular with listeners, the song was reportedly not a favorite among members of the group. John Phillips wrote it and lobbied for the group to record it. Overall, he was a strong creative force behind the scenes, writing or co-writing many of the band's songs.

Just as The Mamas and the Papas became popular, the group was nearly undone by tensions within the band. Complications arose when Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty had an affair. The experience became the inspiration for the song "I Saw Her Again," which John and Denny co-wrote. Michelle and John separated for a time following the infidelity, and both pursued other relationships. Michelle became involved with Gene Clark from the Byrds, which caused even more problems between her and the other group members.

During the summer of 1966, while they began working on their second album, the other band members fired Michelle Phillips and replaced her with Jill Gibson. But Michelle was soon back with the band and with Phillips. In June of 1967, Phillips helped organize the legendary musical event, the Monterey Pop Festival. Held during the "Summer of Love," the event drew many who were part of the burgeoning hippie scene. John Phillips had actually written a popular hippie anthem of the time, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," which was a hit that summer for Scott McKenzie.

The Monterey Pop Festival also served as a turning point for The Mamas and the Papas; it was the last time they all performed together live. In 1968, the band released another self-titled album, which failed to produce any significant hits. The Mamas and the Papas called it quits that July with its members going their separate ways. In 1970, John and Michelle ended their marriage.

After the group—and John's marriage—dissolved, Phillip's life went into a tailspin. He became hooked on heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol, according to his autobiography, Papa John, often got high with his teenage daughter, child actress MacKenzie Phillips.

Personal Struggles

By the end of the 70s, Phillips' lifestyle caught up with him. He was arrested in 1981 on drug charges, and spent time in prison as a result. After he was released, Phillips assembled a new group, The Mamas and the Papas, and begin touring with minor success.

Yet Phillips' relentless drug use continued, and it took a toll on the musician's liver. As a result, he was forced to undergo a liver transplant in 1992, which only delayed his ailing health. In 1998, The original Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three years later, on March 18, 2001, after a continuing struggle with his health, John Phillips died of heart failure. He was 65.

At the time of his death, Phillips was survived by his fourth wife, Farnaz, and his five children, Jeffrey, Mackenzie, Chynna, Tamerlane and Bijou, as well as his two stepdaughters, Atoosa and Sanaz.

Phillips made posthumous headlines in 2009 when his daughter, Mackenzie, accused her father of having a decade-long incestuous relationship with her during his later touring years. Family members deny the allegation.

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