Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Classic Tracks: The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”

Dayton Howe instinctively downplays his role in the creation of one of pop music's most memorable tracks. I was just the engineer, he says. He was also

Read more “Classic Tracks”
Buy the book

Dayton “Bones” Howe instinctively downplays his role in the creation of one of pop music’s most memorable tracks. “I was just the engineer,” he says. He was also “just” the engineer on hits for top-selling artists such as The Turtles, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Rivers, and before the ’60s ended, this former jazz drummer and stockbroker’s son would become one of the era’s leading producers, creating hits by The Association, the 5th Dimension and, perhaps most famously, Tom Waits.

Howe would get to see the very beginning of the arc of The Mamas & The Papas’ rise to the top through to its bittersweet end. In early 1966, “California Dreamin’” was the first of a string of sparks — the group’s first six singles, including “Monday, Monday,” “Words of Love” and “Dedicated to the One I Love,” would all go Top 10 — that helped keep vocal harmony alive, well and hip in the stoned-out fuzzbox of the 1960s.

Howe came of age professionally in an era of the music industry when spontaneity was the currency of the business. Deals could happen — or not — just like that, as could careers. This record would be no different. The track to “California Dreamin’” had already been recorded before The Mamas & The Papas were even signed to producer Lou Adler’s Dunhill Records label. John Phillips, the group’s acknowledged leader and songwriter, was already getting noticed as a composer, and the group — he, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot — was making some money doing background vocals around L.A., where they had moved the year before from New York. All four had roots in New York City’s folk scene. Actually, it was Barry McGuire, of “Eve of Destruction” fame, who originally decided to cut John and Michelle Phillips’ “California Dreamin’,” and Adler and Howe had recorded the track for him. The night they were scheduled to cut the vocals, McGuire brought The Mamas & The Papas with him into United & Western Recorders as backup singers.

“We were working in Studio 3, which was so small that we always did basic tracks first and vocals afterward because you couldn’t fit that many people in there at once,” recalls Howe. “So Barry comes in with these four scruffy-looking characters. Lou said, ‘Let’s listen to them, but first let’s get a few other things taken care of.’ So they waited around while we kept working, doing more tracking. Then we took a break and Barry asked us again to listen to them sing. So we asked if another studio was open and Studio 2 was, so we went in there and John picked up an acoustic guitar and they sang four songs, including ‘California Dreamin’” and ‘Go Where You Want to Go’; basically, they sang what would become their first four hits. Lou turns to me and says, ‘What do you think?’ I said to Lou, ‘If you don’t take them, I will.’ That did it.”

Adler then peeled off $100 and gave it to the group — a down payment on the contract they would sign that same week, and $50 more than Capitol Records A&R chief Nick Venet had given them the day before. “I don’t think Nick ever spoke to Lou again after that,” says Howe.

The track, intended for McGuire (it was released on one of his albums), now became the basis for The Mamas & The Papas’ first hit. It had been played by members of the famed Wrecking Crew, which included Hal Blaine on drums, bassist Joe Osborn, pianist Larry Knechtal and acoustic guitarist P.F. Sloan, who created and played the wonderful picked guitar intro that so perfectly sets up the mid-tempo track. Howe’s tracking technique was typical of the era and varied little, if at all, from session to session. “In those days, we’d have a track mixed together in 10 minutes,” says Howe. “There was none of this, ‘Let me hear the kick drum and now the snare drum.’ If you listen to instruments individually, they don’t sound the same as they will when they’re all playing together, whether it’s a drum kit or a rhythm section. When you have the musicians in the same room together without headphones, they tend to balance themselves better than any engineer can.”

Howe’s standard microphone setup in that era was Shure 546 mics on the kick and hi-hat, as well as on the guitars, with a Sony condenser microphone on the snare. Howe would usually record bass and drums to one track, then put guitars and keyboards on another nonadjacent track (e.g., tracks 1 and 3 or 2 and 4), leaving the intervening tracks for vocals and bouncing. The actual track layout for this song was track 1, female vocals; track 2, guitars and piano; track 3, male vocals; and track 4, bass and drums.

The new vocals by The Mamas & The Papas were laid atop the original track, which fortunately was in the right key because the 4-track Ampex 300 recorder (which was basically two 2-track decks’ electronics in a taller tower with new headstacks) didn’t have much in the way of VSO capability. Howe set up the vocals the way the group naturally stood: the men and women facing each other, close in, each group with its own RCA DX-77 microphone. “I took the two mics and set them in a directional cardioid pattern, with the dead sides facing each other,” Howe explains. “That gave us great rejection and allowed them to sing naturally. The song starts out with the guys singing ‘All the leaves are brown’ and the girls answering the lines. It’s pretty much the group all the way through except for a few lines that Denny sang solo. When the time came for that, John walked around to sing at the girls’ microphone.”

The first-pass vocals were laid to one of the two open tracks. Howe then bounced the music bed tracks together on a second Ampex 300 deck and doubled the vocals, careful to keep the vocal tracks separate from the rest of the recording. Adler wanted a solo, and the arrangement for McGuire had a hole for it on one of the vocal tracks after the second chorus. “Lou was saying he didn’t want a sax solo like every other rock record had,” Howe remembers. “I knew that Bud Schank was playing flute on a jazz session in another studio because I had seen him earlier in the hall. So I went down there and said, ‘I can get you another session when your 8-to-11 [p.m.] is done.’ I set Bud up on one of the DX-77 microphones and he played the solo over the verse chord change.”

Howe was working on a custom console designed by studio owner Bill Putnam. He recalls it as having no more than 12 inputs, possibly as few as eight, but still plenty for a 4-track recording and plenty more for what would be a mono primary mix. A stereo mix was done afterward at Howe’s request, and Adler never bothered to show up for it. “He had the radio mix he wanted in the mono mix,” Howe says. “Stereo was optional in those days.”

In fact, as was often the case in this era, much of the mix had been done as the recording went along, with reverb from Studio 3’s live chamber and EMT plate being recorded to the vocal tracks, and compression supplied by what Howe remembers as the prototype of what would become the 1176 compressor/limiter. “It was just a plain metal face with no numbers or anything on it,” he says. Howe split the men and women right and left, respectively, on the stereo mix, just as they had stood in the studio. He didn’t use a particularly light touch on the reverb on each pass, either, adding a bit more on the final mix. “The reverb was part of the whole ’60s sound,” he comments. “Everyone used it a lot on [all the vocal groups]: Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys and so on. It might have sounded the same, but you have to understand that back then, everyone made the same records. We were using the same studios, the same musicians, the same equipment. The only thing that changed was the artists. That’s where the difference was.”

Like pilots flying on instruments, engineers had to trust their judgment when applying reverb, because, as Howe points out, there was no way to monitor the reverb return separately on the ultrasimple signal path of the Universal console. “Those were very simple straight-line modules: an echo send, a fader and a mic/line switch,” he explains. “The way you monitored it was to listen to the reverb recorded on the track with the vocals. You were making these kinds of commitments and decisions throughout the recording process as you went along. But the benefit was that when you layered the reverbs on each vocal pass, you got this wonderful, sparkling sound from the phasing in the chamber. We didn’t plan these things; we discovered them as we went along.”

With its lush harmonies that practically begged listeners to sing along, “California Dreamin’” was a pleasing slice of folk-rock in a time when other top groups of the day were slowly starting to turn toward psychedelia. The song quickly shot into the Top 10, peaking at Number 4 in the early spring of 1966. It was followed by a string of hits from the album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. The Mamas & The Papas never equaled the performance of that particular collection of songs, either as a group or in their individual solo careers, and personal demons would eventually destroy the group and, ultimately, two of its members: Elliot died in 1974 of heart failure after a handful of respectable solo hits and John Phillips passed away in 2001 after years of alcohol and drug abuse.

But Howe, who stays in touch with Doherty and Michelle Phillips (whom he affectionately calls “Michie”), remembers The Mamas & The Papas as the brilliant and dedicated musicians they were when they made that first record, even though they were still products of the age. “You name an excess — grass, alcohol, whatever — they did it,” he says. “Lou [Adler] later said to me we should have recorded 200 songs for that first album, because their behavior got worse as they got more famous and successful. But when we made ‘California Dreamin’,’ they were still poor kids. That picture of them in the bathtub on the album cover — that’s how they actually lived. But once the money comes, you know what happens. They used to have a contest to see who could spend the most money in a week. John bought a house. Cass bought a mulberry-colored Aston-Martin. She won that week. But they sounded the way they did because they were a group, the same as the musicians in the studio. They don’t sound like their individual instruments, they sound like a unit. Lou Adler said it best when he said to me, ‘Bones, it’s not a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, it’s a ham and cheese sandwich.’ That’s what making a record is all about: how the parts work together.”