Michelle Phillips To Be Honored At 2019 Film Festival - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Island News

Michelle Phillips To Be Honored At 2019 Film Festival

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2019 3:58 pm | Updated: 5:22 pm, Thu Nov 7, 2019.

One of my more entertaining interviews of late, and certainly one with the most star power, occurred a week ago by phone with The Mamas & The Papas co-founder Michelle Phillips. The 75-year-old singing star, who later turned into a fine actress including a career which spanned 88 episodes of tele-drama “Knots Landing,” (1987-93) couldn’t have been more gracious with her time.

Born Michelle Gilliam in Long Beach, Michelle’s mother Joyce Leon died when she was five years old. “When I was born, we lived in Boyle Heights, a Mexican-Jewish community on the east side of Los Angeles,” Phillips recalled. “Then we moved to Watts. My mother’s death wasn’t unexpected, my father and mother knew she was ill. My father Gardner Gilliam took over the parenthood role for me and my sister Russell Ann. We moved to Mexico City where dad went to college on the GI Bill and we went to Mexican private schools. We both learned to speak fluent Spanish. When we came back to LA when I was 11 or 12, I was put back a grade because I didn’t know how to read or write in English. I made that up in the ninth grade.”

Phillips, who is disarmingly honest about her background added, “I met John Phillips when I was 17 years old and he was playing with The Journeymen at the Hungry I and opening for (comedian) Dick Gregory. I was very grown up and I had my hair up in a Chignon, wearing a beautiful black cocktail dress, with my fake ID and I was ready to roar.”

Surprisingly, Phillips has no formal music education, but was a key performer in one of the iconic music group. “The only musical experience I had was singing in my grandfather’s Baptist Church. When we came back from Mexico City every five or six months to renew our visas, my sister and I used to sing together. I had no ambition to be a singer, but when I met John, he would ask me to sing a part. If he was rehearsing with the Journeymen for instance, he would say ‘Michelle come in here and sing this part.’ And I would sing the part and that was about it for singing until the Journeymen broke up. He said, ‘I want you to start taking voice lessons, you’re going to be a member of the new group.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be a member. I don’t sing well enough to do that.’ He replied, ‘It’s the only way we can justify your expenses on the road. Michelle, you sing just fine.”

The New Journeymen was formed, a group that lasted five months, but brought tenor Denny Doherty into the group. Eventually Cass Elliott, a friend of Doherty’s when they performed together in the Mugwumps (It’s hard to beat the band names from the 1960’s)) joined the group. Michelle told the story of how they first met. “One night we were having a little dinner at our house at 7th and D in New York City, which we called our palace in the slums. And our pot dealer came over that night and asked us if we wanted to try something new. They were little sugar cubes with LSD 25. So we all popped one of those and an hour went by and there was nothing happening. We were waiting for Cass Elliott to come over to the house. I remember going to answer the door when the bell rang, and on the way to the door I said you should call Stuart and get our money back. When I opened the door, we went from black and white to technicolor. There was Cass standing there and it was an amazing look. She had her hair in a flip, lashes out to here, wearing a pink Angora sweater, a white pleated skirt and go-go boots. She was 5-1 and weighed 250 pounds. I turned around and said, ‘Hold that call.’ And after a night of rocking, we went to the Virgin Islands.”

Elliott wasn’t an easy sell on the concept of the new group which became The Mamas & The Papas, according to Phillips. “Cass had no interest in rock and roll, she wanted to be a Broadway star. She didn’t have any interest in us, but she was madly in love with Denny Doherty. She was already a minor celebrity. So John, Denny and I went to the Virgin Islands and we had a wonderful time. One day on the beach, we saw this pink dot way down the beach coming toward us, and Denny said, ‘It’s Cass.’ We were there for five months and we ran out of money way before that. John, Denny and I tried to get Cass to join the group and she wouldn’t do it. She said, ‘I’ll never be on stage with Michelle and let the audience make the obvious distinction between us.’ We told her it wasn’t a beauty contest. We would be on stage and she got a job as a waitress, and she sang her part from the floor.”

Sometimes it’s good to be both really lucky and very talented, a combination that found the Mamas & Papas as they were performing in the Virgin Islands. Michelle said, “One day John turned to Denny and asked, ‘How much money do we have?’ Denny said we had $27. John replied, ‘There is only one thing we can do with that, go to a casino.’ And that’s where we went. I had never rolled craps, but they gave me the dice and I rolled and rolled 17 straight passes at the craps table. All of a sudden, we had 50 people around the table. I told John before we went to the casino, if this works, we’re going to LA and not back to New York. The dealer said, ‘Little lady, you have just done the impossible.’ I got to keep the dice and we flew first class to Los Angeles.”

According to Phillips, the group’s signing to Dunhill Records came quickly, but their breakout success hit the pause button briefly. “When we came to LA, we didn’t have a lot of connections, but we did know Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction,” 1965). We called him and he said, ‘Come on over.’ And we moved in with him, all four of us. He listened to everything we had, which was a lot. Barry said we should sing for his producer, Lou Adler. He said Lou would love our music a lot. The next day at Western Studios, we were singing for Lou, who had his hat over his eyes and said, go ahead. We sang him basically our first album. He said, ‘Come back tomorrow at 3 p.m. and we’ll talk some more.’ The next day Lou had contracts laid out all over the floor and that was how we got signed to Dunhill Records. It was this little label, very hip and they had Johnny Rivers, who was such a great, great artist. We went into the studio and started to record, and our first record was ‘California Dreamin’.’”

As for the release of the “California Dreamin’,” there is a back story that is still paying off today for Michelle Phillips. “The song was released in late November 1966. We heard it on the radio once and then nothing. We thought, ‘This isn’t good.’ Then all of a sudden, it broke in Boston and shot up the charts. It was a really fun and wonderful experience for all of us. I wrote half the song, the second verse, and I get half the song writing royalties. And I deserved them. My husband John wrote everything else, but John was very generous with his publishing rights. You can’t say that about many writers. And he was right, because he needed the help. God bless me, I was there at 3 a.m. to help him. John said, ‘If you help me now, you’ll thank me for that every day. It’s a song with long legs.”

Arguably “California Dreamin’” was the better known song, but “Monday, Monday” also released in 1966, was the quartet’s biggest selling song and their only No. 1 hit. “California Dreamin” peaked at No. 4. Michelle Phillips was also the co-writer of another of the group’s hits “Creeque Alley.”

Another career highlight was the First Monterey Pop Festival, founded by John Phillips and Lou Adler, as Michelle explained. “We were trying to figure out how to bring in groups, put them up, pay them, pay the air fares and make a profit. Lou said, “Well maybe we could make it a charitable thing.” The performers played for free. We put together a group including Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney and formed a Board of Governors. People were clamoring to come to the Pop Festival, to be part of it. I recommended that Otis Redding be invited because I had seen him perform at the Apollo Theater. He had the audience in the palm of his hand and people were weeping in the audience. He was so talented and beautiful. Janis Joplin did a beautiful set. Paul McCartney nominated Jimi Hendrix and we flew him in from London and people were dumbstruck. We had The Who, Iefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, The Animals and The Mamas and The Papas. It was three days of music, love and flowers. Lou Adler had 150,000 orchids flown in from Hawaii and every seat had an orchid on it. It was such a beautiful experience, it couldn’t be done again. It was a moment in time. To this day, the Monterey Pop Festival generates hundreds of thousands of dollars for music in schools, free clinics and all things hippy.”

When asked about the greatest female voices of the 1960’s and 70’s, Phillips replied, “Judy Collins, and I loved Grace Slick and Cass Elliott.” When asked if Linda Ronstadt belonged in that group Phillips replied, “Absolutely, I love Linda and I was one of her greatest fans. I wish I had done the Mexican record album before she did.”

After huge success, but ongoing friction within the group, The Mamas & The Papas broke up in 1970. Michelle and John Phillips divorced, and Michelle turned to a good source for some career advice in acting. “I told Jack Nicholson I wanted to be an actress and he said, ‘Join a workshop.’ That was the best advice I could get. I studied, did scene work, performed improv and did all the things you should to get on stage. My first movie was “Dillinger” and it was such a wonderful experience. I had great actors around me including Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Ben Johnson, and Cloris Leachman (Another CIFF Award Winner in 2019). They all helped me. They knew it was my first film and they walked me through it. I was so lucky. I got a Golden Globe nomination for that performance. Then later I worked on Knots Landing for six years and it was the best time of my life. I was Nicolette Sheridan’s awful mother and we had a blast. I won the ‘Best TV Villainess of the Year Award,’ and it’s one of the awards I’m most proud of, including a Grammy and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And I won a People’s Choice Award. I’m a happy gal and I am very close to my family, Chyna, Austin and Erin and all my grandchildren. I couldn’t be a happier person. I am surrounded with the most beautiful people in the world.”

Chyna Phillips, part of the group Wilson Phillips and Michelle’s daughter, still performs 15 concerts annually. Among the three members of Wilson Phillips, they have nine school-aged children. Michelle Phillips said, “They have such a huge fan base, you wouldn’t believe it. They are a really wonderful act. They are all devoted to their families, and they don’t do a concert unless they all agree they have time to take away from their families.”

Michelle Phillips will be appearing after the showing of “Echo Canyon,” a documentary film in which she appears. Phillips will be part of an audience question and answer session following the film, which shows Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Coronado Performing Arts Center at Coronado High School. She will also be honored Sunday at 7 p.m. during Leonard Maltin’s Celebrity Tribute Dinner, which will be held at the Hotel Del Coronado.

In other Coronado Island Film Festival news, Executive Director Merridee Book announced a couple of additions to the schedule, starting with the movie “91 Nights: A Left to Tell Story,” a movie based on the New York Times Best Selling novel by Immaculee Ilibagiza. A director’s cut of the movie, which addresses the genocide in Rwanda, will be shown at 10 a.m., Sunday Nov. 10 at the Village Theatre. Immediately following the screening, Ilibagiza will have a meet-and-greet with the public at the Coronado Public Library, along with a book signing. Ilibagiza will also receive a Humanitarian Award from the CIFF at the Leonard Maltin Celebrity Tribute.

Merridee Book added, “Our Film Buff passes, which cost $195 are really great and as I like to say, we have 1,000 seats to fill every two hours, so those pass holders will get into something. A ton of Film Buff holders got into the Culinary Cinema presentations. We have tickets available at the door for $15 when available. We also have Day Passes for $75 which are only good for the day you buy them, and you can make reservations as well. We also have a film “One Child, One Nation, which is getting Oscar buzz. We will show that at 7 p.m. Sunday night at the Village Theatre. It’s about the One Child Policy in China and it’s a pretty fascinating documentary.”

To purchase tickets or for additional information about the film festival which runs this weekend from Nov. 8-11, please go to www.coronadoislandfilmfestival.com.

More about

Rules of Conduct

  • 1 Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
  • 2 Don't Threaten or Abuse. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated. AND PLEASE TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
  • 3 Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
  • 4 Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
  • 5 Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
  • 6 Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Welcome to the discussion.