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In 'Creeque Alley,' Mamas & Papas Told Their Story: Lyrics And Meaning

Music | February 4, 2021

Photo of The Mamas and the Papas circa 1970 by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"...And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass" -- that's the chorus to "Creeque Alley" by The Mamas And The Papas, and you don't need to be an expert on the band to guess it's an autobiographical song. After all, the most prominent member of the group was "Mama" Cass Elliot, who famously had a weight problem. Listen more closely and you'll hear about Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and John Phillips -- the other three members of the group -- as well as "McGuinn and McGuire," Zal and Sebastian. People seem to be getting together, splitting up, criss-crossing the country and experiencing professional frustrations. There's really quite a lot going on in this 3 minute, 45 second tune, and it captures not just the formation of the group but also the moment when the folk scene was evolving into a new genre called folk-rock.

Source: Pinterest

To protect their prominent reputation, some bands never admit their difficult upbringings and failures experienced on their road to stardom. But The Mamas And The Papas chose to share the whole messy history in "Creeque Alley." The song was included on their third album, Deliver (1968), and by then they were a well-established pop group, with one #1 single ("Monday, Monday") and three top-five performers ("California Dreamin,'" "I Saw Her Again" and "Words Of Love") under their belts.

Many of the locations in the song were unfamiliar to most of their listeners, including their biggest fans, as were the connections among musicians, so it was really exciting to hear the honest story. Written by the group’s members John and Michelle Phillips, the tune deserves much decoding -- beginning with its title.

John And Michelle’s Romance Was Love-At-First Sight

Source: Wordpress

Although the song’s title is never explicitly referred to in the song, the real Creque Alley (spelled differently from the title) was a series of alleys in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands that was home to Sparky’s Waterfront Saloon, a club where John Phillips frequently performed with his former folk group The Journeymen. Scott McKenzie, the future singer of the 1967 Summer of Love hippie anthem "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)," was also a member of the group at the time, before he embarked upon his successful solo career. Michelle and John first met at the coffee club made up of beat poets and musicians called "the hungry i" in San Francisco. John was immediately smitten by her and instinctively left his own wife and kids behind to marry Michelle in 1962. At the time, Michelle was focusing on a modelling career, but after hearing her angelic voice, John convinced her to sing with him.

The Group Began As The New Journeymen

Source: Discogs

"Creeque Alley" begins with the line “John and Mitchie were gettin’ kinda itchy just to leave the folk scene music behind,” referring to the struggles they faced with the music scene in the early ‘60s. Heavier rock music seemed to be booming, while folk’s popularity was declining, thus John and Mitchie (Michelle’s nickname) were tempted to give up their dreams and ditch folk music altogether. Fortunately, they decided to persist and after disbanding The Journeymen, they reformed as the New Journeymen with John, Michelle, Marshall Brickman and Denny Doherty.  signified their reliance on credit cards because of the group’s lack of finances to cover their expenses.

Creeque Alley Sheds Light On Fellow Folk Rock Figures

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Creeque Alley also introduces us to many characters along the way in their early, challenging career stages as well. We meet future Lovin’ Spoonful member Zal Yanovsky who also teamed up with Denny Doherty when the group sings “Zal and Denny, workin’ for a penny, tryin’ to get a fish on a line.” Yanovksy and Doherty were playing in a folk trio called The Halifax Three in their home country Canada. "In a coffeehouse Sebastian sat" refers to future Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian, who was plying his trade as a folk singer in coffee houses, where musicians were often paid by donations from the crowd dropped into a hat. 

"McGuinn and McGuire just gettin’ higher in L.A., you know where that’s at" gives us Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn, soon to form of The Byrds, and Barry McGuire who had just released the massive hit "Eve of Destruction." Both artists were finding success with an early folk-rock sound in Southern California, so "getting higher" could refer to their career trajectories. The line could also just be about the two literally getting high on pot.

Mama Cass Brings Folk Rock To A Whole New Level

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Listeners also get to hear the story of Cass Elliot (Mama Cass), the powerful voice that truly completed the Mamas & The Papas. Although she was often criticized for her weight, the song embraces her obesity with the clever line “and no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass,” which has a double meaning. While it's true Elliot was quite large, it's also true that she was really the only one in the entire scene making good money -- "getting fat" -- as a jazz singer in Washington D.C. 

Elliot needed to get to the epicenter of the folk scene, so the song finds her “Standing on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike, Take her to New York right away.” John and Michelle were in New York City as well.  Eventually, Elliot played with the band The Mugwumps with Yanovksy, her first husband Jim Hendricks, and Denny Doherty. Cass was smitten with Doherty, resulting in the song’s verse, “When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps” -- but the feeling wasn't mutual. 

Time went on and folk was booming again as “Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful,” while, “Michelle, John and Denny getting’ very tuneful,” and together they formed The Mamas And The Papas with Mama Cass. 

Source: nytimes.com

The final two verses of "Creeque Alley" get a little raw, describing the group at the point of exhaustion -- or "broke, busted, disgusted" as the lyrics put it. This section is based on the quartet's stay in the Virgin Islands. Despite the success their friends were having, The Mamas And The Papas hadn't quite found their groove, and were actually hashing out their identity -- whether to stick with folk or try this new thing called folk-rock -- in the island paradise. Though it wasn't exactly paradise for them, as they were out of funds ("greasin’ on American Express cards") and were having trouble with "agents" and "the heat." These could be references to travel agents and the high temperatures near the equator -- or it could indicate trouble with the law.

But the song has a happy ending, with the line “California Dreaming is becoming a reality.” "California Dreamin,'" released in December 1965, was the Mamas And The Papas' first hit.

The Mamas & The Papas Proved Anything Is Possible

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"Creeque Alley" peaked at #5 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in May 1967. The song served as an inspiration for local bands to keep trying to reach their dreams, even when it seems hopeless just as it did for so long for the legendary folk group. With the amount of musicians mentioned, Creeque Alley also shows how many people in the music scenes of the ‘60s were connected, and there was more friendship than rivalry most of the time. 

The Lyrics To 'Creeque Alley'

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John and Mitchy were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind
Zal and Denny workin' for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line

In a coffee house Sebastian sat
And after every number they'd pass the hat
McGuinn and McGuire just a gettin' higher
In L.A., you know where that's at

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass

Zally said Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do, let's go south
Denny said Zally, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you

Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they'd pass the hat
McGuinn and McGuire still a gettin' higher
In L.A., you know where that's at

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day
Standin' on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike
Take me to New York right away

When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps
McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aimin' at

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps
Don't you work as hard as you play
Make up, break up, everything is shake up
Guess it had to be that way

Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful
Michelle, John, and Denny gettin' very tuneful
McGuinn and McGuire just a catchin' fire
In L.A., you know where that's at

And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass

Di di di dit dit dit di di di dit, whoa

Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted
And Mitchy wants to go to the sea
Cass can't make it, she says we'll have to fake it
We knew she'd come eventually

Greasin' on American Express cards
It's low rent, but keeping out the heat's hard
Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely

And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality

Tags: Barry McGuire | Cass Elliot | Creeque Alley | Denny Doherty | Folk Music | John Phillips | John Sebastian | Michelle Phillips | Roger McGuinn | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Mamas And The Papas | Folk Rock

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.