John Phillips Biography

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Genres: Blues, Rock, Rock:70's Rock, Soundtracks


Born before a Labor Day hurricane in Parris Island, SC on Aug. 30, 1935, John Edmund Andrew Phillips was the son of a career Marine Corps officer who expected his son to follow in his footsteps. However, Phillips was more interested in music and, in particular, vocal harmonies. He began devoting his time to several music groups while growing up in Alexandria, VA, with that passion allowing little time or energy for other ambitions. Not surprisingly, his academic stints at Hampden-Sydney College and the U.S. Naval Academy were short-lived. His first marriage to Susan Adams, scion of a wealthy Virginia family, was equally brief, but produced two children, a son, Jeffrey, and a daughter, Laura, who later used her middle name Mackenzie for her career as an actress and occasional singer.

Phillips first found success as a member of The Smoothies, a vocal pop group that included Scott McKenzie and several Washington, D.C. friends. The group enjoyed minor success with a pair of singles, including "Softly," for the Decca label, before Phillips and McKenzie left the group to join the growing folk movement in New York's Greenwich Village. With banjo player Dick Weissman, they formed the Journeymen, which found success on the club circuit and recorded three well-received albums. While performing at San Francisco's Hungry I coffee house, Phillips met 17-year-old Michelle Gilliam, whom he would marry in 1962 after divorcing Susan Adams. Two years later, McKenzie and Weissman left the Journeymen, which Phillips countered by forming the new Journeyman with his wife and Marshall Brickman, a former member of the Tarriers who would later go on to share a screenwriting Oscar with Woody Allen for "Annie Hall" (1977).

Phillips befriended Canadian folk singer Denny Doherty, who briefly filled in with the New Journeymen following Brickman's departure in 1965. By this point, the folk revival was on the wane, and Phillips saw the future of his group in rock-n-roll. With Michelle and Doherty, he lit out for the Virgin Islands, where he began composing new material for a group that could mix pop songs with his cherished vocal harmonies. Doherty suggested his longtime friend Cass Elliot, a veteran of the New York folk scene and his former bandmate in the short-lived Mugwumps. Phillips initially vetoed the idea, citing the dichotomy between the trio's slim, model-esque good looks and Elliot's Rubenesque figure. Eventually, he recanted, and after returning to Los Angeles, the group, dubbed the Mamas and the Papas, auditioned for Dunhill Records chief Lou Adler, who immediately signed them to the label.

Though the Mamas and the Papas' songs sounded like sweet pop confections, there was an element of sadness that ran through their best songs, like "I Saw Her Again," "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin'." That quality was informed by the romantic entanglements in the group's private lives: Doherty and Michelle Phillips were carrying on an affair, which left not only John Phillips devastated, but also Cass Elliot, who had carried a torch for Doherty since their New York folk days. That emotional rawness set the Mamas and the Papas apart from other vocal groups of the day like the Association or the Turtles, and helped to make them a favorite of the counterculture. However, it also fostered a growing resentment between the members that would ultimately prove to be the group's undoing.

For a period of about two years, the Mamas and the Papas were among the most popular acts of the 1960s, scoring Top 10 hits with "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday," which became their sole No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. Phillips drew further acclaim with "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair," a No. 4 single for former Journeymen bandmate Scott McKenzie and for many, the official anthem of the West Coast hippie movement. By the following year, he was instrumental in organizing the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, the first major pop-rock music event in history. Such acts as Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar all gave legendary, star-making performances during the three-day event.

But as Phillips and the Mamas and Papas reached the height of fame, their internal turmoil began to tear the group apart. Michelle Phillips was briefly fired from the group after her affairs with Doherty and the Byrds' Gene Clark came to light. Lou Adler's girlfriend, Jill Gibson, replaced her before the Phillipses settled their differences. Elliot quit the group in 1967 after Phillips insulted her in front of a party filled with celebrities in England; she returned long enough to finish their fourth album, The Mamas and the Papas, which completed the contract with Dunhill Records. The album fared poorly in comparison to their earlier work, and by 1968, the members had gone their separate ways. John and Michelle Phillips also ended their marriage that year, shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Chynna.

Phillips released his solo debut, John, the Wolf King of Los Angeles, in 1970. Despite solid songwriting, the album was a failure, due in part to Phillips's dislike of his own vocals, which he buried deep in the mix. He began a relationship with South African actress Genevieve Waite, who became his third wife in 1972, and with whom he had two children, a son named Tamerlane and a daughter, Bijou, who would later dabble in film and music. There were also experiments with soundtrack music for Robert Altman's "Brewster McCloud" (1970) and the book and lyrics for a musical, "Man on the Moon," produced by Andy Warhol. It was completed in 1974 and ran for two performances before closing after a barrage of hostile reviews.

During this period, Phillips became deeply entrenched in cocaine and heroin use. The abuse torpedoed his creative energy, bringing to a halt a 1973 solo project collaboration with Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood - that would have revived his pop career. Phillips resurfaced briefly in 1976 to provide the soundtrack to Nicolas Roeg's science fiction drama "The Man Who Fell to Earth," but he spent most of the decade consuming and eventually selling drugs. The latter earned him a 1981 conviction for narcotics trafficking and a month-long incarceration, following by rehabilitation. Phillips emerged from the experience sober and ready to serve as a cautionary tale to young people through numerous promotional appearances. For many of these, he was joined by his daughter Mackenzie, who had undergone her own substance abuse turmoil for much of the decade, culminating in her dismissal from one of the most popular series of the 1970s, "One Day at a Time" (CBS, 1975-1984).

Phillips began to rebuild his music career in the years that followed his arrest. He re-formed the Mamas and the Papas with Doherty and daughter Mackenzie, with Spanky McFarlane of the '60s pop group Spanky and Our Gang replacing Elliot, who had died in 1974. He toured with the group in various permutations throughout the decade, and penned a candid, frequently hair-raising autobiography, Papa John, in 1986. Two years later, he surprised much of the music industry by helping to co-write "Kokomo" with producer Terry Melcher, old friend Scott McKenzie, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who recorded the song for the "Cocktail" soundtrack in 1987. The song provided the Beach Boys with their first No. 1 hit since 1966.

Years of drug abuse required Phillips to undergo a life-saving liver transplant in 1992, though he raised eyebrows by being photographed drinking in a bar later that year. In 1998, he reunited with Doherty and Michelle Phillips for the Mamas and Papas' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the final years of his life, Phillips launched into a flurry of projects, including a new solo album, Phillips 66 and the completion of his long-lost project with the Rolling Stones, which he titled Pay Pack & Follow. However, he would succumb to a heart attack on March 18, 2001, and both albums would be released posthumously.

In 2009, Phillips' name was again bound to controversy when Mackenzie Phillips alleged in her memoir High on Arrival that she had been involved in an incestuous affair with her father from the age of 19 that reportedly resulted in a pregnancy. The allegations were met with both support and disdain from various members of her family, with mother Genevieve Waite and stepmother Michelle Phillips dismissing the story, while half-sister Chynna Phillips and Jessica Woods, daughter of Denny Doherty, backed the statements. Bjiou Phillips added fuel to the fire by stating that Mackenzie's accusations, which she learned about in 1997, ruined her relationship with her father and contributed to her own substance abuse issues, which plagued her teenaged years.

By Paul Gaita




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