California Dreamin’ — a ghostly presence still haunts the 1966 hit


At the age of 19, Michelle Phillips had never seen snow. Coming unseasonably attired from balmy Los Angeles to an especially gelid New York winter in 1963, the young singer felt little in the way of enchantment towards the white shroud settling over the city. On walks around Manhattan with her new husband John Phillips, she pined for the warmer climes of the West Coast. Returning to a dank hotel room, her homesick reveries would turn into dreams of California.

One night she was woken up by John, who had spent the past few hours transposing her misery and nostalgic yearning into a song. By this point Michelle had already grown weary of her husband’s drug-induced nocturnal bursts of creativity and tried to go back to sleep. “You’ll never regret it, I promise you,” he implored.

Within a few hours, the core melody, first verse — opening with Hemingway-esque line “All the leaves are brown/and the sky is grey”  — and refrain of what would become “California Dreamin’” were written. A second verse, in which the narrator admits to paying lip service at a church to escape the biting cold — a heathen in search of heating — was later added by Michelle. Imbued with such a disarming sense of loneliness and vulnerability, it was based on her own stop at St Patrick’s Cathedral days earlier.

For two years the song had been seemingly filed away for a winter’s day. But in 1965, John and Michelle joined up with Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty to form The Mamas & the Papas; the band soon secured their first contract with Dunhill Records after a recommendation by another of the label’s artists, Barry McGuire (who had had a hit in 1965 with “Eve of Destruction”). To return the favour, the band invited their friend to record “California Dreamin’” himself, with the group providing backing accompaniment.

Their selflessness was almost instantly rewarded. Unconvinced by McGuire’s gruff, strained vocals,studio head Lou Adler asked the band to record their own versionwith Doherty as the lead singer and with a wistful (improvised) flute interludereplacing the former’s incongruous, bluesy harmonica solo.“I actually thought that must have been how George Martin felt after he heard The Beatles,” Adler later said of his first experience of hearing them sing. By the end of spring 1966, “California Dreamin’” had spent 17 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, peaking at number four.

Barry McGuire’s name, meanwhile, would soon be all but forgotten. And yet his voice will forever haunt The Mamas & the Papas’ version, as his original vocals were never entirely scrubbed from the opening bars of the re-recorded take.

McGuire’s recording — which features the exact same guitar intro and background vocals (played by legendary session musicians The Wrecking Crew) — serves as an uncanny alter ego of one of the most beloved songs of all time. But “California Dreamin’” has taken on hundreds of widely disparate guises since its release.

Bobby Womackset a high bar with his lively 1969 version, which married soul vocals with blaring brass and nylon-string shredding. He, like almost every other artist to cover the song over the decades, curiously seemed to mishear the rather cynical second verse lyric “I pretend to pray” as the more benign “I began” — possibly owing to the fact that Cass Elliot got it wrong herself on the record’s backing track.  

Another soul artist, Lee Moses,delivered a slow and mournful rendition, while funk legend Eddie Hazelturned the song into an electrified, psychedelic odyssey. Fans of finger-searing guitar playing can also turn to interpretations by José Felicianoand George Benson,or, for more exotic flair, the instrumental, bouzouki-led effort by Monophonics.

Elsewhere, America offered up a jaunty, disco-influenced version in the late 1970s, while The Beach Boystried to revive the 1960s California sound with their oddly timed 1986 cover. More vocal-led iterations meanwhile come courtesy of Nancy Sinatra(sultry), Diana Krall(melancholy), Scala & Kolacny Brothers(ethereal), Queen Latifah (velvety) and The Carpenters(tonally confused).

There have also been some California nightmares inflicted on listeners by German DJ Freischwimmer,Meat Loafand Sia— whose overblown version operates under the specious assumption that more is more.

But even a cover by David Hasselhoffcouldn’t diminish the enduring legacy of The Mamas & the Papas’ recording. Perhaps more than any song, “California Dreamin’” captured the modern mythology surrounding the West Coast — its title almost becoming a metonym for the pursuit of health, happiness and success. As the band themselves knowingly sang on “Creeque Alley”, their 1967 meta song chronicling their rapid rise to the top: “California dreamin’ is becoming a reality.”

What are your memories of ‘California Dreamin’’? Let us know in the comments section below.

The Life of a Song Volume 2: The fascinating stories behind 50 more of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.

Music credits: MCA Records; Capitol; Essential Media Group; Real Gone Music; RCA Victor; Music On CD; Transistor Sound; Boots Enterprises; UMG; Wall of Sound; A&M Records; Dusty Desert; Import; Crimson

Picture credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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