The tragic death of The Mamas and the Papas' Cass Elliot

The Mamas and the Papas was one of those '60s phenomena, a blend of soft rock rising out of the folk music era, four young people delivering a truly distinctive sound, performing music that captured the public's ear and held tight. John Phillips, Michelle Phillips (yes, they were married), Denny Doherty, and Cass Elliot found their way into each other's artistic circle and soared, says Biography. Until they crashed — not exactly a flash in the pan, but not The Beach Boys, either — partly because of what founding member Michelle Phillips told Vanity Fair was "two and a half years of total melodrama."

The woman who would become "Mama" Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1941, according to Haaretz. Her mother had been a professional singer, and her father was devoted to opera. By the time she was 19, Cass was performing in the Washington D.C. area in a group called The Triumvirate, which later simplified to The Big Three. Cass and another band member, James Hendricks, married — it's often characterized as an attempt to save Hendricks from being drafted, and the marriage was annulled in 1968.

Cass was the last member to join The Mamas and the Papas

That group broke up at least in part because of tardiness. "(O)ne of the guys was chronically late and I couldn't take it," she told Rolling Stone. "I feel when you're supposed to be someplace on time, you're there on time." The woman was professional, through-and-through.

Cass and Hendricks eventually joined forces with Denny Doherty, along with John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky (who would later be part of The Lovin' Spoonful) to form yet another group, The Mugwumps. Cass and Denny formed a friendship that survived the breakup of the band.

Denny began to work with John and Michelle, and Cass wanted to be part of what was becoming a solid vocal group. She actually followed them to performances, asking to be part, informal auditions, showing off her considerable chops, back in the mid-1960s. Eventually, John — the composer and arranger — relented. As for the four Mamas and Papas, John and Michelle were married, and Denny and Cass were best friends. So far, so good — until it wasn't. As Rolling Stone relates the story, Cass was thoroughly in love with Denny, who refused to see her as anything but a friend, and unrequited love is not a lot of fun.

Cass produced solo albums and toured

In what our more enlightened times would call a cut-and-dried case of fat shaming, John was even reluctant to allow Cass to perform on stage with the other three — great voice, fun to be around, but, well, chubby. "I've been fat since I was 7," as Rolling Stone quoted her for her obituary. Her former agent, Bobby Roberts, said, "She was overweight, but she carried it off like she was a beauty queen." John eventually relented — and was no doubt grateful he did, at least in hindsight. They had hits with John's compositions and arrangements, and Cass shone in their cover of 1931's "Dream a Little Dream of Me."

By 1968, the group had fractured, for a variety of reasons — Michelle was engaged in an affair with Denny, and Cass had the opportunity to go solo. Michelle was fired and replaced, and Cass realized she wanted to explore other opportunities. She doesn't seem to have been a fan of what the group recorded anyway — "there are a very few songs on all the Mamas and Papas albums that I'm really proud to listen to. I don't have the records in my house," she told Rolling Stone in 1968.

She was a popular guest and host on TV variety programs

She went on to record on her own, producing a series of now-standard pop songs, including "Make Your Own Kind of Music"; toured; and had steady gigs on TV variety shows, both as a guest and as host. Her weight continued to trouble her, and she engaged in dangerous diet practices, including fasting four days a week. She kept it up for seven months and dropped 110 of her reported 300 pounds, says The Guardian, but ended up hospitalized as a result.

She had just completed a concert series in London at the Palladium when she died on July 29, 1974. Press, including Rolling Stone, originally (and mistakenly) attributed her death to choking on a ham sandwich. In truth, she died of a heart attack. "There was left-sided heart failure," as The Guardian quotes pathologist Keith Simpson. "She had a heart attack which developed rapidly." The fatal weakness of her heart might well have been a direct result of her severe dieting practices over the years. She was just 32 years old. Biography tells us that Cass was survived by her daughter, Owen, who accepted on Cass's behalf when The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.