They looked and sounded different than other pop acts of the time, and they introduced this new hippie image to the Sullivan stage. John Phillips recalled “we were the first group to ever appear with just what we had on. And we’d go to the Sullivan show with whatever we had in the closet, we would just put it on and walk out. The Beatles had their little suits and The Rolling Stones had little suits and Eric and The Animals had their little suits. And we were just all raggle-gaggle. Because we were so out of it, we didn’t know the difference. You know, we just thought, gee, just wear what you have. And so we were very clearly defined as hippies. “
For their first appearance, on December 11th 1966, they performed their number one hits, “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming” as well as “Words of Love.” As soon as their performance ended, they knew they had hit the big time. Michelle Phillips attributed a large majority of their success to Sullivan when she said “The minute we started doing Sullivan, people started buying those records.” It was Sullivan’s openness to new talent that Phillips believes helped theirs and many others’ careers succeed. She went on to say, “You think of him (Ed) as being a very conservative guy, but look at the people he brought onto his show. He was the one who had control of that — nobody else.”
The appreciation the group had for Sullivan was consistently visible. In Gerald Nachman’s Right Here on Our Stage Tonight! Ed Sullivan’s America, Doherty also praised Sullivan when he exclaimed that “On the West Coast, there were The Hollywood Palace shows that we’d do, but this was the Sullivan show, this was New York, this was the Great White Way! This was the ultimate, as far as doing American television—Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town!” Sullivan returned the praise and love, and even asked the group members for their autographs for his daughter, Betty, a huge fan. On the September 24th, 1967 show, the group gave Sullivan love beads that he wore when he sat and chatted with the foursome on stage.
The Mamas and The Papas performed four times on The Ed Sullivan Show and used their appearance to announce to fans that they weren’t breaking up, but merely letting things cool off for a bit. However, after the break the group reformed but was never able to revive its former glory.
The Mamas and The Papas eventually disbanded in the early 1970s, but the individual members did manage to find success on their own. Cass Elliot launched a successful solo career, tragically passing away from a heart attack in 1974. The remaining members reunited in 1998 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with John’s daughter, Mackenzie, filling in for Cass. Before dying of heart failure in 2001, John Phillips continued to write for other performers and created The New Mamas & the Papas with Mackenzie as part of the group. Denny Doherty also had various solo successes. He became a producer of musicals and television shows before kidney failure took him in 2007. Michelle Phillips, the only surviving member of the group, became a successful actress in both film and television.
Though untimely deaths and personal dramas took a severe toll on The Mamas & The Papas, the foursome’s legacy as groundbreakers and musical legends lives on. Their timeless hits and innovative styles made The Mamas and Papas unforgettable, and are on full display in their classic Ed Sullivan Show performances.