‘High and Lows’: Being in The Mamas & the Papas

Exclusive: former member of The Mamas & the Papas, Jill Gibson, speaks to the US100

Published March 2017

In the mid-to-late 1960s period in which The Mamas & the Papas found success, the band’s musical achievements were largely tempered by high levels of personal and emotional distress, as we detailed in our write up of Track 1 of the US100, California Dreamin’. One person able to offer a unique level of insight into this period of turmoil – as well as into the wider counterculture movement – is Jill Gibson. The singer was a photographer at the first ever rock festival in 1967, the Monterey Pop Festival, organised by ‘Papa John’ Phillips, and the band’s producer, Lou Adler; and she had previously been a member of the band for a period in 1966, temporarily replacing John’s wife, ‘Mama Michelle’ Phillips, following exposure of Michelle’s affair with bandmate ‘Papa Denny’ Doherty.

Now an artist and sculptor, we are delighted that Jill took some time to answer some of US100’s questions about her experiences. 

JZ: Hi Jill – thank you for taking the time to speak with us. First of all, how was it that you came to be involved with The Mamas & the Papas?
JG: I was in a relationship with Lou Adler at the time, who had just produced the band’s debut album (If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, 1966). When Michelle was kicked out of the group that year, I fit the bill to replace her, having been in the music business for a number of years. It was agreed that I would be a permanent member, even if John and Michelle’s relationship improved over the course of time. However, that was not to be.

Jill Gibson, third from left, in 1966’s temporary line up of The Mamas & the Papas

JZ: Naturally it seems like it was a chaotic time for the band. Were you able to enjoy it at all and do you personally look back at this period of time with fondness?
JG: No – or rather, it’s a mixed bag. It was fun singing John’s music, touring, and working in the studio to record the second album (The Mamas & the Papas, 1966). But the group’s lifestyle was very different to mine, and I often didn’t feel comfortable around the unpredictability of so much drug use. Also, I was aware of Michelle’s very dramatic efforts to regain her position in the group and in John’s life. And since Michelle had had an affair with Denny at this stage, and Cass [Elliot, the fourth band member] was in love with Denny as well, it was all rather incestuous. The witnessing of all that drama was upsetting emotionally, and the other three members were in constant turmoil as to what was going to happen. So, there were highs and lows for me. If I were to look back, which I don’t often do, I feel glad that I had that experience.

JZ: Tell us about your experiences of the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967. Do you agree that it was the first ever rock festival, and is it slightly unfair that Woodstock seems to command a higher profile despite Monterey preceding it?
JG: I was exploring the possibility of being a photojournalist at the time, due to an influential relationship I had with the renowned photographer, Ralph Gibson, in early 1966. I was photographing everything in my life, so it was natural I would photograph Monterey as well. It was fortunate timing. I had a great time there. The festival was the perfect size, relaxed, non-violent, had great weather, and it was a coming out for Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and others.

As far as I know, it was indeed the first rock festival ever. All the previous festivals had been about jazz or blues. I’ve often wondered why Monterey got less press than Woodstock, and I do think it’s unfortunate. This year is the 50th anniversary of the festival – my photographs are to be displayed at a few gallery events around the country, where I may be making an appearance.

JZ: I selected California Dreamin’ as my US100 opening track as it’s an all time favourite of mine that has always been part of my life since childhood. As someone who was around at the time of release and who came to know the band personally, what does the song mean to you?
JG: Well, I’m a native of California, LA born, so I can relate to wanting to be there, with it’s sunshiny weather, away from a cold winter day. It seems there may also be a personal message in the song – but if so, I don’t know about it.

JZ: Tell us about your studio – how did your career progress to this point?
JG: I have always been in the arts, from the time I played the violin in the 3rd grade in the orchestra of the Mar Vista Grammar School. Later, I traded my violin for a guitar, and we also had a piano in our home which I really enjoyed playing. So, music has always been very important in my life – I played guitar and wrote music throughout my school years, this eventually leading to me writing music for Jan and Dean, which then led to me singing with The Mamas & the Papas. But throughout these years I was also painting. Eventually I decided to leave the LA area and move to New York City to study painting, which I did for many years. Around 1997 I became interested in concrete sculpture, and I have pursued that for the past 18 years. As that became too heavy an art form, I transitioned to sculpting with metal clay, a fairly new medium created in Japan some 15 years ago. That is the art medium I am working with now, and all my art can be seen on my website: www.gibsonarts.com.

US100 Track 1: The Mamas & the Papas – California Dreamin