Michelle Phillips Biography


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Genres: Classical/Opera, Pop, Rock, Soul/R&B


Born Holly Michelle Gilliam in Long Beach, CA on June 4, 1944, this atypical "California girl" was the daughter of Gardner 'Gil' Gilliam, a movie production assistant, and Joyce Poole, an accountant. After Phillips' mother died from a bran aneurysm, Gilliam took her and sister Rusty to Mexico for several years before returning to Los Angeles. There, he imparted a curious blend of self-reliance and lust for life on his daughters; a county probation officer, he promoted self-reliance and discipline while indulging in marijuana and multiple marriages. She found a kinship with the exotic Tamar Hodel, a friend of her sister's boyfriend and the daughter of Dr. George Hodel, a public health official who had been accused of molesting Tamar in a scandalous trial in 1949 (he would later be named by his own son as the infamous Black Dahlia killer). An exotic if troubled figure, Hodel would take the teenaged Phillips under her wing, teaching her how to drive and providing her with clothes while introducing her to a bohemian lifestyle that included blues music and amphetamines.

In 1961, Phillips and Hodel moved to San Francisco, where they indulged in the growing counterculture movement. The pair became involved with a pair of singers from the folk group the Journeymen - Hodel with Scott McKenzie, who would later score a 1967 hit with "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," and Phillips with the group's leader, John Phillips. At the time, she was a gorgeous 16, and Phillips was 23 and married. But after divorcing his wife and gaining the blessing of Phillips' father, who had himself just married a teenager, the new couple moved to New York City, where he boarded her at a dorm for teenaged professionals while crafting a new act built around the obvious pull of her fresh-faced beauty. The result was the New Journeymen, a folk act that featured John and Michelle on vocals and Marshall Brickman, a former member of the Tarriers who would go on to win an Academy Award for co-writing "Annie Hall" (1977).

By the mid-1960s, however, the acoustic folk scene was on the wane, and John Phillips was again on the hunt for a new direction for his group. After closely watching the success that acts like The Byrds and The Lovin' Spoonful had with blending folk music with rock and pop, he crafted a blend of the New Journeymen's vocal harmonies with lush pop orchestration. His first effort in this direction was the song "California Dreamin'," which he co-wrote with Phillips. With the addition of Canadian folk singer Denny Doherty and the Rubenesque Cass Elliot, his partner in a short-lived outfit called the Mugwumps, John and Michelle created the Mamas and the Papas during a drug-filled visit to the Virgin Islands. Upon their return to the United States, they auditioned for famed producer Lou Adler, who immediately signed them to his label, Dunhill Records. From 1966 to 1968, the group scored five Top 10 hits, including the No. 1 single "Monday, Monday." Phillips would receive co-writing credit on a handful of songs, including the autobiographical "Creeque Alley," which would detail the origins of the Mamas and the Papas.

While audiences loved the group's gorgeous four-part harmonies and striking look, which was largely anchored by Phillips' model-worthy features, the Mamas and the Papas was among the most dysfunctional acts of the 1960s, due in large part to the combative dynamic between the married couple and Doherty and Elliot. John Phillips was jealously possessive of his young wife, who responded by indulging in affairs with band mate Doherty, as well as singer-turned-producer Russ Titelman and Gene Clark of The Byrds. The latter forced John Phillips to briefly fire her from the group, but after some negotiation, they reconciled and moved into the wealthy Bel Air neighborhood, where their home became the focal point of outrageous, drug and music-fueled Hollywood parties.

But as before, the sunny exterior of the Phillips' lives concealed a darker core. John Phillips kept an iron grip on Michelle's day-to-day life; she was forbidden to leave the home without his approval, and on one occasion, domestic violence was used to keep her in line. The Mamas and the Papas would have one final, spectacular year in 1968, which culminated with the Monterey International Pop Festival, which John Phillips co-orchestrated with Lou Adler, Paul Simon and Johnny Rivers, among others. The three-day festival introduced American audiences to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding, and set the tone for Woodstock a year later. That same year, Michelle Phillips gave birth to a daughter, Chynna. But the tensions between the couple, combined with John Phillips' prodigious work ethic, led to their divorce that same year.

While John Phillips descended into a substance-fueled hell for the next two decades, Michelle Phillips attempted to reinvent herself as a solo performer and actress. The former saw only minor returns, and by the 1970s, she was reduced to singing backup for Leonard Cohen and providing backing vocals on the Cheech and Chong novelty hit "Basketball Jones" (1973). She made her movie debut in Dennis Hopper's sprawling, psychedelic "The Last Movie" (1971), and married her director-movie star shortly after completing the film. At the time, Hopper was in the midst of a mental breakdown that would continue well into the 1980s. Their marriage lasted just eight days before Phillips filed for divorce, marking one of many trips to tabloid covers for the free-spirited singer-actress.

For most of the 1970s, Phillips divided her time between acting and engaging in newsworthy affairs with major stars. The former was steady if unimpressive; she was John Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie Frenchette, in "Dillinger" (1973), and had supporting roles in Ken Russell's "Valentino" (1979) and "Bloodline" opposite Audrey Hepburn and James Mason. The latter, however, included such A-list lovers as Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty and briefly, Lou Adler, before marrying radio executive Bob Burch in 1978. In the late 1970s, Phillips would intervene in the marriage of John Phillips and South African model Genevieve Waite, which had descended into heavy heroin use. She extricated their son, Tamerlane, from their disastrous home environment and secured legal custody of the boy to John's sister, Rosie, while remaining financially and legally responsible for his care. John Phillips and Waite would reclaim their son after spiriting him to Las Vegas under the ruse that they were taking him to Disneyland. A protracted legal battle followed, which resulted in her losing custody of Tamerlane. Burch pushed a devastated Phillips to get over the loss, which resulted in their divorce in 1980.

Phillips worked steadily in television throughout the 1980s, eventually landing a series regular role on "Knots Landing" (CBS, 1979-1993) as the conniving mother of vixenish Nicollette Sheridan. She also penned an autobiography, California Dreamin': The True Story of the Mamas and the Papas, which attempted to counter the grisly recollections in John Phillips' raw memoir, Papa John. During this period, Phillips became involved with musician-turned-actor Grainger Hines, with whom she had a son, Austin, while serving as a foster mother to another boy, Aron Wilson. In the 1990s, she saw her daughter, Chynna, rise to the top of the pop heap as a member of the vocal trio Wilson Phillips along with her childhood friends from an equally dysfunctional rock-n-roll family, Carnie and Wendy Wilson, the daughters of troubled '60s pop genius, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

In 1998, Phillips was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Mamas and the Papas. She performed "California Dreamin'" with surviving members John Phillips and Denny Doherty - Cass Elliot had died in 1974 - for the first time in over two decades. She would reunite with Doherty for the group's induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year she married her third husband, plastic surgeon Steven Zax. Phillips would become the sole surviving member of the original Mamas and Papas after the deaths of John Phillips in 2001 and Denny Doherty in 2007.

In 2009, Phillips' one-time step-daughter Mackenzie Phillips - famous for her work as Julie Cooper on "One Day at a Time" (CBS, 1975-1984) - alleged in her memoir High on Arrival that she had been involved in an incestuous affair with her father, John, from the age of 19 that reportedly resulted in a pregnancy. To the surprise of many, both Michelle Phillips and Genevieve Waite were vehement in their dismissal of the story as fiction culled from years of drug use and brought forward to aid book sales. Equally shocking, however, was Chynna Phillips' support for her step-sister's claims. Waite's second child by John Phillips, actress-singer Bijou Phillips, also backed her sister's story, adding that her own much-publicized substance abuse issues were the result of the trauma incurred by Mackenzie telling her about the taboo affair in 1997. In any case, Phillips was livid, publically defending her ex-husband's reputation, and armed with the knowledge she was also the sole survivor and thus protector of the Mamas and the Papas legacy.

By Paul Gaita