Michelle Phillips remembers 1963 as a year of bone-chill and profound homesickness.
The Long Beach native, then 19, had married John Phillips in late 1962 and the two had shuttled off to New York to seek fame with their folk group, the New Frontiersmen. "We were staying at the Albert Hotel, near Washington Square. It was a fleabag. I had never seen snow before, I had never been to the East Coast. I was miserable."
One blustery day, the couple were strolling by the marble spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I wanted to go in just to see what it looked like, but John wouldn't go with me," Michelle recalled. "He had been sent off to a parochial school when he was 7 and, well, he just had very strong negative feelings about the church. So I went in alone."
That random moment took on new meaning a few weeks later. It was the middle of the night when John, guitar in hand, woke his wife up.
"He undoubtedly had taken a few bennies. I wanted to go back to sleep, but he said I would thank him someday if I got up and worked on it with him." A few years later, with the Phillipses singing as half of the Mamas & the Papas, that late-night sketch of a song became the evocative pop masterpiece " California Dreamin.' "
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
I'd be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
On such a winter's day . . .
"He had the lyrics for those first eight bars that night," said Michelle Phillips, the only surviving member of the Mamas & the Papas. "I added the next few lines about the church. He hated it. Just hated it. But he didn't have anything better." That portion of the song -- " Stopped in to church / I passed along the way / Well, I got down on my knees / And I began to pray" -- has an interesting history. Not everyone hears the same lyrics, and that includes the people who sang it.
"We were on the road after the song was a hit and I was a doing a sound check with Cass [Elliot], and I sang the lyric. She looked at me and said, 'Wait, what did you say? I thought the lyric was 'I pretend to pray.' That's how she had been singing it all along!"
The Phillipses divorced in 1970. Michelle would become a successful television actress and used "California Dreamin' " as the title of her 1986 autobiography. She was shocked when, shortly before his death in 2001, her ex-husband publicly said she didn't deserve to share the songwriting credit with him on the classic. "I was hurt," she said. "It didn't make sense to me."
The song endures, especially in film soundtracks, where its layered swoon (thanks to producer Lou Adler) serves as shorthand for the kaleidoscope 1960s. "It sounded like a dream. I can't tell you how many times through the years people told me they moved to L.A. after they heard that song."