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In a 2002 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Michelle Phillips explained how this song came about. It was 1963, and she was newly married to John Phillips. They were living in New York City, which was having a particularly cold winter, at least by Michelle's standards as she was from sunny California. John would walk around the apartment at night working out tunes, and one morning brought the first verse of the song to Michelle. It was a song about longing to be in another place, and it was inspired by Michelle's homesickness.
Michelle enjoyed visiting churches, and a few days before, she and John visited St. Patrick's Cathedral, which inspired the second verse.
This is a rare Pop song that contains a flute solo. Even more surprising, it's an alto flute, which is larger than a regular flute and plays in a lower register. A Jazz player named Bud Shank was brought to the session to play it. Shank, who also played saxophone, had a minor hit with his version of The Beatles "Michelle
" in 1966. He died in 2009 at age 82.
Doug Thompson tells this story:
Denny Doherty once told me that when they were recording that song, they wanted a solo, but didn't want the usual guitar solo. John Phillips walked out into the hall of the Hollywood recording studio they were at and Bud Shank was in that hallway as well. John grabbed him and brought him into the studio. Shank listened to the hole he was supposed to fill and nailed it on the first take.
When the group was just starting out in 1965, their friend Barry McGuire helped them get a contract with his record label, Dunhill Records. McGuire recorded the first version of the song with The Mamas & The Papas as his backing band and a harmonica solo instead of a flute. It was going to be used as the follow up single to his hit, "Eve Of Destruction
." The Mamas & The Papas then decided to record it on their own, with Denny Doherty (the other Papa) singing lead and some chord changes he came up with after consulting the session guitarist, P.F. Sloan, who had him listen to "Walk - Don't Run
" by The Ventures. The results were impressive, and Dunhill Records agreed to use it as their first single, holding off on McGuire's version so there wouldn't be competition from an established artist.
At the same time, The Mamas & The Papas' version of their song "Go Where You Wanna Go" was pulled to focus on "California Dreamin'," allowing The Fifth Dimension to score their first chart it with the song a few months later. (thanks to Kent Kotal at Forgotten Hits
The Mamas & The Papas recorded this song in Los Angeles at United Western Recorders, in the same studio where The Beach Boys recorded their Pet Sounds album. Musicians on the session, which took place November 4, 1965, were some of the great session players of the era: Hal Blaine (drums), Larry Knechtel (keyboards), Joe Osborn (bass) and P.F. Sloan (guitar). John Phillips also played guitar on the track - that's him on 12-string during the intro. The engineer on the track was Bones Howe.
The Mamas And The Papas had a string of hits until 1968, when the group split up. They reunited occasionally until 1974, when Mama Cass Elliot died of a massive heart attack due to her poor health and eating habits. (thanks, Jessy - Pittsfield, MA)
The Carpenters recorded a version of this that Richard Carpenter released on his 2001 album As Time Goes By. In the liner notes, he explains:
"Another demo from Joe's [Joe Osborn] studio, circa 1967. This one however, is on the one 4-track that Joe gave to me. Even though the most important ingredient on tape, the lead, is on its own track, the bass, piano, drums and string machine were all bounced to another track, leaving two open... Karen, at 17, is a marvel. I especially like the way she jumps an octave, from chest voice, to head voice on the letter (and note) "A" in the opening." (thanks, Patrick - Wahiawa, HI)
The Beach Boys released a cover of this song in 1986, which made its way into the lyrics of the Dead Milkmen song "Punk Rock Girl
": "someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox, it was California Dreamin.'" The Beach Boys cover was popular at the time, which is why they got the credit, although many listeners though the Milkmen had their vocal groups mixed up.
Other popular covers are from America, George Benson and Guster.
One of the more misheard lyrics comes in the second verse of this song, as "You know the preacher likes the cold" is often mistaken as "the preacher lights the coals."
Michelle Phillips told Spinner
in a 2012 interview that John didn't like the second verse - "Stopped into a church, I passed along the way ... " She explained: "Poor John had been sent of to Catholic military school when he was just 7 years old, so he didn't like the religiosity of it." He told her that he didn't want, "religion and churches," so she said they will rewrite it. However, when the others heard the second verse they wanted to keep it. "Glad we did!", she said.
In their 1967 song "Creeque Alley
," The Mamas & The Papas gave a history of the band and explained what happened when they did come to California.
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