California Dreamin’ original
California Dreamin’ original recorded before the Mamas & the Papas
Newlywed singer songerwriters John and Michelle Phillips wrote “California Dreamin'” in 1963. It’s a song about longing for the warmth of Los Angeles during a cold New York winter. The Phillips’ group, the Mamas & the Papas, released a version of the song in December 1965. This version is widely recognised for ushering in the counterculture era. However, it was folk rocker Barry McGuire who recorded the “California Dreamin'” original earlier that year. The Mamas & the Papas sung backups for McGuire’s original version.
As well as marking a transition from yeah-yeah 60s to hippie 60s, I find “California Dreamin'” highly relatable. That’s because I detest the cold and am constantly dreaming of someplace warm.
Inspired by cold weather and churches
John and Michelle Phillips were living in New York City during a particularly cold winter. This made Michelle miss her native California. Inspired by his wife’s homesickness, John paced about their apartment at night working out tunes. He came up with a first verse and presented it to Michelle.
A few days earlier, Michelle and John had visited St Patrick’s Cathedral. The visit gave Michelle the idea for the second verse, “Stopped in to a church, I passed along the way.” In a 2012 interview with Spinner, Michelle said that John initially didn’t like that second verse.
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 Phillips
The couple planned to rewrite the lyrics of the second verse. But when other people heard the words they liked them, so they kept them.
Born in 1935 in Oklahoma City, McGuire first worked as a commercial fisherman then a pipe fitter before commencing his music career. Known for his raspy singing voice, McGuire became one of the early folk-rock musicians. He is best known for his hit protest song, 1965’s “Eve of Destruction”. The song reached number one on the Billboard pop charts, displacing the Beatles’ “Help!”
McGuire, Mamas & Papas
The Mamas & the Papas formed when Michelle and John Phillips of the New Journeymen joined with Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott of the Mugwumps.
In 1965, McGuire introduced his friends the Mamas & the Papas to Lou Adler, the head of Dunhill Records. The band auditioned for Adler and subsequently signed to their first label. In return, the Mamas & the Papas agreed to provide McGuire with backing vocals on his second Dunhill album, This Precious Time.
With all the right players in place, “California Dreamin'” was slated to be McGuire’s next big hit following “Eve Of Destruction”. McGuire recorded the “California Dreamin'” original with members of the session band the Wrecking Crew and the Mamas & the Papas on backing vocals. The recording featured a harmonica instead of the flute that appeared on the Mamas & the Papas version.
McGuire’s singing voice was known for being rough and ragged. This worked well for “Eve of Destruction” but less so on the “California Dreamin'” original. John Phillips and Doherty’s sweeter-sounding voices were a better fit for a song like “California Dreamin'”.
Shortly after recording the “California Dreamin'” original, Phillips wiped McGuire’s vocals and substituted them with vocals by himself and Doherty. The original instrumental and backing tracks remained the much same. Only McGuire’s harmonica solo was replaced by a reportedly-improvised alto flute solo by jazz musician Bud Shank. Dunhill preferred this new version and put McGuire’s original on hold.
Although it’s a shame what happened with McGuire’s “California Dreamin'” original, the Mamas & the Papas recorded the better version. The flute solo really brings out the song and the lead vocals sound better.
McGuire wasn’t happy and didn’t speak to Phillips for several years. “Eve of Destruction” was his only song to reach the top 40. In 1971, McGuire became a born-again Christian and spent the rest of his career recording contemporary Christian music.
That California Sound
The song that would make the Mamas & the Papas synonymous with the California sound was recorded in Los Angeles at United Western Recorders, in the same studio where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds. Session players included Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Joe Osborn on bass and PF Sloan on guitar. Phillips also played 12-string guitar during the intro. Bones Howe was engineer on the track. McGuire’s original vocals can be briefly heard on the left channel at the beginning of the record.
“California Dreamin'” is one of the few pop songs containing a flute solo. The flute was an alto flute, larger than a regular flute and played on a lower register.
Mamas & Papas legacy
The Mamas & the Papas “California Dreamin'” featured on the band’s debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. It came out as a single in December 1965. “California Dreamin'” didn’t do that well until a Boston radio station helped break the song nationwide. It then peaked at number 4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Cashbox. By 1966, “California Dreamin'” became a big hit and staple song for the counterculture movement.
In the UK, “California Dreamin'” reached number 23 and re-charted at number nine following its use in a 1997 Carling Premier commercial. Consistently found in top 100 songs lists, the song reached number 89 in Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Certified Gold in 1966, “California Dreamin'” was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
“California Dreamin'” propelled the Mamas & the Papas into stardom. Their second single, “Monday, Monday”, shot to number one in America. The band had a string of hits until messy love triangles, personality problems and addiction issues caused them to split up in 1968. They reunited occasionally until Mama Cass Elliot’s death in 1974. Today, Michelle Phillips is the only surviving member of the group.
Other versions of California Dreamin’
Several other artists released versions of “California Dreamin'”, including:
- Jose Feliciano (1968) – a string version with Latin jazz influences that featured in the 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
- Bobby Womack (1968) – recorded for his debut album Fly Me to the Moon.
- Colorado (1978) – Italian disco version.
- America (1979) – became the band’s live performance staple.
- Beach Boys (1986) – number 8 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts and featured John and Michelle Williams in the video clip.
- River City People (1990) – Folk version that reached number 13 in the UK.
- Royal Gigolos (2004) – German punk techno version that reached number two in France.
- Freischwimmer (2015) – tropical house version that reached number one on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. This was the first version of “California Dreamin'” to make it to number one.
- Sia (2015).