Forty-five years ago today, the world lost “Mama” Cass Elliot, member of the Mamas and the Papas and a pivotal figure in the 1960s California rock scene. She was found dead at the infamous 1 Curzon Place, a London apartment that Harry Nilsson had rented out to the star. (Four years later, Keith Moon would die in the same apartment, also at 32 years old.)
Contrary to a nasty urban legend, Elliot did not die from choking on a ham sandwich, which London celebrity doctor Anthony Greenburgh originally told the Daily Express. “She appeared to have been eating a ham sandwich and drinking Coca Cola while laying down,” he reported. “A very dangerous thing to do.” Later, Coroner Gavin Thurston would reveal that the sandwich was not the cause — as it had been untouched — and Elliot had actually died of a heart attack. However, nearly half a century later, the myth persists.
Elliot had been in London performing a two week-stint at the London Palladium, with sets that included “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” a 1931 standard that she originally recorded with the Mamas and the Papas in 1968. Though there are more than 60 versions of the song, including one by Ella Fitzgerald, it quickly became Elliot’s signature tune. “I tried to sing it like it was 1943,” she told Melody Maker. “I tried to sing it as if it were the first time.”
The single came out in June 1968, credited to “Mama Cass with the Mamas and the Papas,” angering the band, who had already been dealing with inner turmoil for some time. In addition, the single featured a controversial poster of Elliot lying nude covered in daisies. “At that point nothing really surprised you about Cass,” bandmate Michelle Phillips recalled to Eddi Fiegel in her Elliot biography Dream a Little Dream of Me. “She also had a butterfly tattooed on her ass and I’d never heard of a woman getting a tattoo.”
The Mamas and the Papas disbanded shortly afterwards, leading Elliot to finally embark on a solo career. She re-recorded “Dream a Little Dream of Me” for her debut solo album Dream a Little Dream, released just four months later, in October ’68. You can watch a performance of the classic in the video above, when Elliot appeared on the short-lived Ray Stevens Show in June 1970. Elliot strolls across the in a silk nightgown, eventually sitting in front of a lonely candle-lit dinner while singing. “Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you/Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you.” The song lingers on.
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