On December 8, 1965, “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas was released. Inspired by a frigid New York City winter and a nagging homesickness for the warmth of Southern California, the song was written by John and Michelle Phillips. “California Dreamin’” went on to spend 17 weeks on the Billboard charts. It also became an anthem for the West Coast counterculture movement and inspired many to make the fateful pilgrimage to the Golden State.
Before John and Michelle Phillips linked up with Mama Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty to form The Mamas & The Papas, they were living in New York City performing and writing as the folk group, The New Journeymen. During a freezing cold winter in 1963, John would write music through the night. One evening, when Michelle was in a deep dream state, he woke her up to play the first verse of the song inspired by her homesickness (“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey/I’ve been for a walk/On a winter’s day/I’d be safe and warm/If I was in L.A.”) Michelle was exhausted but inspired by the opening lyrics to wake up to work on the song with her husband. The second verse was influenced by Michelle’s recent walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (“Stopped into a church/I passed along the way/Well, I got down on my knees/And I pretend to pray.”)
Shortly after penning this soon-to-be classic rock staple, the songwriting couple escaped the harsh New York City winter for a camping trip in the Virgin Islands. On that trip, they met future bandmates, Mama Cass and Doherty. After partying and making music with them, they founded their folk-pop band and moved to California. The melding of their folk and jazz harmonies with rock and roll music got the attention of their friend Barry Maguire. Maguire turned his producer Lou Adler on to the talented folk-pop band. Although John and Michelle wanted to gift Maguire with “California Dreamin’,” once everyone heard them record backups for it, the studio decided that the Mamas & The Papas should record it on their own.
When “California Dreamin’” was first released, it took a few months to catch on with radio listeners. However, the song finally broke in Boston and then it became a national hit. Today, many other legendary artists have covered the song, including the Beach Boys. The Mamas & The Papas generated other hits in their three years as a band, including “Monday, Monday” and “Dedicated To The One I Love” and in 1998 they were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. They will forever be remembered for beautifully voicing our collective national longing for a sunny escape.