How the iconic tune 'California Dreamin' came to be
We asked YOU what you think California's state rock song should be. Some said the fairly well-known tune "California" by the group Phantom Planet, and of course Tupac Shakur's "California Love" was a popular choice. But by far, the favorite was "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas.
Now we follow up on the story we did last week about Massachusetts's search for a state rock song. We asked YOU what you think California's state rock song should be.
But by far, the favorite was "California Dreamin'", by the Mamas and the Papas:
Like almost every song, there's a story behind "California Dreamin," but this one is pretty unique.
Fifty years ago in 1963, John Phillips was a struggling songwriter and musician living in New York when he wrote "California Dreamin'." He was also one-forth of the Mamas and the Papas, along with his wife, Michelle, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot.
Two years later, the band was living in L.A., and barely getting by. They'd cut one single, but it went nowhere, so John Phillips was pitching songs to other artists, and he managed to get "California Dreamin'" to a guy named Barry McGuire.
He was a former folk singer, and a member of a fresh-faced group called The New Christy Minstrels, who'd gone sorta hippy, and had a hit with a protest song:
Barry McGuire was going back to the studio, trying to find a hit to follow up Eve Of Destruction. His producer was Lou Adler, a guy who is now a legend. He hired a few members of a famous group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew to record the backing track. Barry suggested the Mamas and Papas do the back up vocals.
According to Dayton Howe, the engineer on the recording, Lou Adler was so impressed with the Mamas and Papas, he gave them a $100 bill as a down payment on a contract. Then, he took the backing track and replaced Barry's vocals with Denny Doherty, one of the Papas. He went up an octave, and it gave the song that sort of wistful longing that helped make it a hit.
But there were a few other things. You know the break in the middle of the song, where the flute comes in? The man playing that solo, on an alto flute, is Bud Shank. Jazz fans will know him as an important part of the Cool Jazz movement. He reportedly improvised the solo on the spot, one take, but in the original recording, Barry McGuire played a harmonica.
The harmonica didn't jive well for anyone, so Barry McGuire's version ended up as a track on an album that went nowhere. But "California Dreamin'" put the Mamas and the Papas on the map, and although it stalled at number four on the charts, the group's next single, "Monday, Monday," made it to number one.
The Mamas and the Papas version had that special something that gave it real staying power. Michelle Phillips is still around, and Lou Adler? He's 80 and still the coolest guy in the business, but Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and John Phillips are all gone. The record was so beautifully produced, from the first note to the last, it still sounds fresh today. Even though I would probably vote for Tupac, or maybe Joni Mitchell's "California," or there's even a really great Ray Charles version of "California Here I Come," "California Dreamin'" is clearly the front runner for the state song.