Video may have killed the radio star, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when the sound of a musician actually outweighed (no pun intended) their physical appearance. While it's a matter of record (if some dispute) that Mama Cass' girth is what initially kept her from being brought into the group that would become The Mamas and the Papas, the fact is her smooth and velvety alto was a defining trademark of that group, a trademark she carried forth into a successful solo career, at least until her untimely death in 1974 from an apparent heart attack (more about the alleged mode of death later in this review). Mama Cass (ne้ Ellen Cohen) may not have looked like your average pop star, but the lady could sing, and she had an appealingly low key and also often self deprecatory quality about her, both of which are on full display in this 1969 ABC television special.
Cass, who got her start in the then burgeoning folk movement of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s with such groups as The Big 3, revisits her musical roots in this special, offering some nice solo moments for Joni Mitchell, Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and her longtime friend John Sebastian. In fact in the Mitchell-Travers segment, it's interesting to contrast Mitchell's sunny brightness (albeit tempered with poetic malaise) in her rendition of "Both Sides Now," with Travers' sort of rinky-tink vaudeville turn in her version of Laura Nyro's "And When I Die." I was just the right age to have twin crushes on Mitchell and Nyro when I was a kid--Joni was the California blonde (or at least I thought so at the time), a soaring vocalist with just the right amount of angst tucked under her unusual guitar tunings. Nyro, on the other hand, was like your mother's worst nightmare for a girl you might bring home--dark, battling some obvious demons, but incredibly attractive in that tortured artiste sort of way. It's fun here to hear their songs done one right after the other, even if Travers' take on Nyro's material is nowhere near as classic as Blood, Sweat and Tears' hit version, or even Laura's own wailed rendition. The three singers then join in a very nice version of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."
If Sebastian's musical interlude is a little less compelling than the three women together, the obvious fondness Cass has for him shines through their little segment, and Cass' off the cuff, seemingly unscripted anecdote about them staying up all night watching movies in Manhattan and then talking about how someday they'd be stars themselves is decidedly charming.
A little less charming are the "comedy" segments with Buddy Hackett, who actually is a little less schtick-filled than he usually is, sharing his and Cass' Jewish heritage freely in an opening "sit down." Their skit, about two forlorn people at a hospital, is actually quite touching in a kitchen sink Marty sort of way. More bizarre is the quartet of Hackett, Cass, and none other than Martin Landau and Barbara Bain doing an absolutely surreal version of "Meeskite" from Cabaret. No, I'm not kidding. Bain and Landau also do an equally forlorn comedy bit about two elders at a computer dating service. There's a strange undercurrent of sadness in both of these ostensibly funny skits that's rather odd for a major television network special of this era.
The show is also notable for Cass doing a medley of some of the Mamas and Papas' hits, taking lead vocals on both "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday." Unintentionally ironic, considering the supposed reason first attributed for her death (i.e., choking on a ham sandwich) is the name of her backup group, Hamfat, a ragtag assemblage of players and three African-American backup singers who manage to inject a little soul into the proceedings.
Cass is perfectly at ease (in fact, perhaps a bit too much so--she fluffs a few lines here and there and isn't really "formal" in the sense that most television variety show hosts and hostesses were back in the day) and makes a very appealing central figure. The music was all obviously performed live, which is a major plus in my book, and Cass for the most part sounds excellent throughout (there are some mix problems when she doesn't have her microphone placed properly, something obviously in the source material). The set here resembles the second Andy Williams show for NBC in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the audience in tiers surrounding the stage on three sides. All of it, as well as Cass' costumes, are Day-Glo bright, with a multi-screen backdrop that includes everything from photos of Cass and her guests to Bob Peak inspired illustrations.
I couldn't help but feel a little sad watching this special, and not just because of the weird writing of the skits. Mama Cass was a distinctive, warm hearted performer with a lush voice who left us far, far too early. At least we have her recordings (several of which have been surfacing on Lost), as well as her film and television performances to remind us that, as she states to Hackett at the top of this special, true beauty comes from within.