'California Dreamin' by The Mamas & the Papas: The making of the sunshine pop classic

23 September 2022, 11:16 | Updated: 20 September 2023, 13:54

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By Mayer Nissim

The story of how a collection of backing singers broke out by taking back their own classic song.

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In the space of just a couple of years in the mid-1960s, The Mamas & the Papas released four hit albums, going on to sell an estimated 40 million records around the world.

Their first hit and signature song was 'California Dreamin'', which is maybe the archetypal slice of California Sound.

Like Beach Boys songs 'Surfin' USA' and 'Good Vibrations', it's one those hazy tracks that perfectly captures the '60s explosion of youth dazzled by the SoCal sun.

But did you know that they weren't the first singers to record the song – not as the lead artists anyway?

Read on to find out who did it first, and everything else you ever wanted to know about 'California Dreamin''.

Who wrote 'California Dreamin'' and who recorded it first?

The Mamas & The Papas - California Dreamin'

'California Dreamin'' was written by John Phillips and Michelle Phillips way back in 1963, when the then-married couple were living together in New York.

You may well recognise those names. That's "Papa" John Phillips, of course, and both halves of the relationship would find fame as part of The Mamas & the Papas.

But despite a core part of the group writing this absolutely massive song, they weren't actually the first to record it.

Oklahoma-born but California-raised folk rocker Barry McGuire, best known for his take on PF Sloan's apocalyptic protest song 'Eve of Destruction' was the first to lay down 'California Dreamin'' in the studio.

Barry McGuire - Eve Of Destruction (1965)

Thankfully, McGuire introduced the Ms and the Ps to Dunhill Records boss Lou Adler, who had the group sing backing vocals on the song, which also featured members of session gods The Wrecking Crew.

This recording was the second track on McGuire's This Precious Time album, which featured The Mamas & the Papas on seven of its 12 songs.

Adler, it's fair to say, liked what he heard. He grabbed the very same instrumental and backing vocal tracks, and had Denny Doherty re-record the lead.

California Dreamin'

Want proof? Jam your ear next to the left speaker right at the start of the song, and you can hear the not-completely-erased original McGuire singing "All the l-" along with the band before he's unceremoniously cut off.

While Adler was changing and, let's be frank, massively improving the song with the new lead vocals from Denny, he also had Bud Shank lay on that gorgeous alt flute solo, which was apparently improvised.

The Ventures "Walk Don't Run"

'California Dreamin'' was maybe three or four chords,' PF Sloan told Songfacts about the recording.

"I added the 'Walk - Don't Run' Ventures guitar riffs for that 'da da da da da da.' That was all creative work inside the studio when I heard them singing on mic.

"I had recorded them with Barry McGuire on his second album, so I knew how good they were."

This new version of 'California Dreamin'' deserved much more than being an album track, and so it proved.

When was 'California Dreamin'' released and where did it get in the charts?

The Mamas & the Papas - California Dreamin'
The Mamas & the Papas - California Dreamin'. Picture: Alamy

As said, Barry McGuire's original version of 'California Dreamin'' was on his third studio album This Precious Time, which came on December 14, 1965, but he was beaten to the punch.

A month earlier, The Mamas & The Papas released their first single – a limited promo release of 'Go Where You Wanna Go', which was backed by 'Somebody Groovy'. Both sides were produced by Lou Adler, with Sloan performing.

Obviously when 'California Dreamin'' was in the can, plans changed fast.

The Mamas & the Papas perform "California Dreamin'" at the 1998 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

'Go Where You Wanna Go' was swiftly withdrawn (it would later be a Top 20 hit by The 5th Dimension), and The Mamas & the Papas first "proper" A-side became 'California Dreamin'', with 'Somebody Groovy' still on the flip.

It was officially released on December 8, 1965, a week before the original recording by McGuire hit the shelves as an album track.

The Mamas & the Papas version went to number 23 in the UK charts and all the way to number 4 in the US.

It also featured on their 1966 debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, which topped the US albums chart.

What is 'California Dreamin'' about?

The Mamas & the Papas
The Mamas & the Papas. Picture: Getty Images

Despite its thrilling and boundary-pushing sound, 'California Dreamin'' is actually a pretty straightforward song lyrically speaking.

Stuck in grey-skied NYC during the city's typically cold winter, the narrator wishes they were back in the balmy heat of Los Angeles. That's about it.

The song mirrored the experience of John and Michelle, who lived that exact experience when they were in New York in 1963.

That was while the pair were in the New Journeymen, the group who would eventually become The Mamas & the Papas.

The church in the second verse was inspired by the couple's visit to St Patrick's Cathedral around that time.

"Poor John had been sent off to Catholic military school when he was just seven years old, so he didn't like the religiosity of it," Michelle later told Spinner, but it stuck.

Is Mama Cass singing "began to pray" or "pretend to pray" in 'California Dreamin''?

The Mamas & the Papas on Rodgers & Hart Today
The Mamas & the Papas on Rodgers & Hart Today. Picture: Getty Images

You can clearly hear Denny Doherty singing "pretend to pray", just as Michelle Phillips wrote, but the backing vocals are a little muddier.

That's because Cass Elliot got the words wrong, and sang "began" to pray on back-up.

That mixup even carried on during the early live performances, till Michelle noticed and put her right.

Mama Cass isn't the only one to get the lyrics wrong in 'California Dreamin'', to be fair, with plenty of people mishearing "the preacher likes the cold" as either "locks the door" or "lights the coals", apparently.

Who has covered 'California Dreamin''?

America - California Dreaming (From the 'California Dreaming' Soundtrack) (1978)

The most well-known and first-released version of 'California Dreamin'' is, as we now know, technically a cover, but since The Mamas & the Papas took it to the Top 5, it's since been covered many times over.

It was the first track recorded by America's Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell after the departure of fellow founding member Dan Peek, with their version going into the top 60 in 1979.

The Beach Boys - California Dreamin' (Official Music Video)

It was also appropriately covered by The Beach Boys in 1986 for their Made in USA compilation, which not only included on-off-member Brian Wilson, but also featured The Byrds' Roger McGuinn on 12-string guitar and was produced by Terry Melcher.

Other high-profile covers have included versions by The Seekers, Johnny Rivers, Bobby Womack, Wes Montgomery, Sia, The Four Tops, Nancy Sinatra, Carpenters, Queen Latifa, Meat Loaf, Wilson Phillips, Diana Krall, Jose Feliciano and Freischwimmer.