Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Michelle Phillips had never seen snow before. She grew up in Mexico and California, so when she went to New York to stay at the Earle Hotel with her husband John, she didn’t have the right clothes. The couple had spent the day walking together, stopping by a church to warm up in the process. The next morning, John woke her up and told her to write this down.
“This” was the start of “California Dreamin’,” the Mamas and the Papas’ first big hit. It was earmarked to be Barry McGuire’s next big hit after “Eve of Destruction” – they’d recorded the backing vocals for him and everything – but then the powers that be decided to strip McGuire’s lead and add Denny Doherty’s. The Mamas and the Papas version came out first, and in Los Angeles, it did nothing. But in Boston, a town that knows a thing or two about wishing for warmth in the dead of winter, it hit big, and from there it soon made it to all of America. (Even if most of America, including Cass Elliot herself, misheard the lyric “I got down on my knees / And I pretend to pray” as “I began to pray.”)
The song has retained its wistful hold on distant comfort to this (winter’s) day. It also has a tensile strength, with artists speeding it up, slowing it down, and adding any color they liked to great effect. Jose Feliciano’s version is probably the most famous cover, but these five easily match it for the changes they put it through, and the success of those changes.
Bobby Womack – California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & The Papas cover)
Bobby Womack’s debut album was a long time coming; by the time Fly Me to the Moon was released in 1969, the twenty-five-year-old Womack had been singing professionally for over fifteen years. He’d gone through enough ups (riches from the Stones covering his “It’s All Over Now”) and downs (ostracized for marrying Sam Cooke’s widow) to have a lot to pour into his “California Dreamin’.”
Clara Ward and the Ward Singers – California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & The Papas cover)
I can’t find any indication that Aretha Franklin ever sang “California Dreamin'” – a missed opportunity, that. If she had, it might have sounded something like Clara Ward’s version. No wonder; Ward and her singers regularly toured with Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, and Ward served as her mentor. The album featuring her take on “California Dreamin’,” 1969’s Walk a Mile in My Shoes, was released only a few years before Ward died of a series of strokes; Aretha sang at her funeral.
Lee Moses – California Dreaming (The Mamas & The Papas cover)
Lee Moses didn’t get anywhere near the attention he deserved in his lifetime. The one album he recorded, 1971’s Time and Place, wasn’t discovered by soul fans until after his death in 1998. Since its rerelease, he has been acknowledged as a driving force, with his guitar, his voice, and his sheer talent. “California Dreaming” (unlike all the other artists here, Moses kept the G) is a good indicator of what he could do.
The Jacksonians – California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & The Papas cover)
Here’s another “California Dreamin'” cover that brings someone else to mind – namely, Isaac Hayes. That makes sense, because the Jacksonians were a Memphis soul group, and while they didn’t record for Stax, that label’s sound permeated the city the way Motown permeated Detroit. The band was originally from Jackson, Tennessee; they played for a good twenty years, but even after changing their name to Lanier & Co., they never quite got a hold of the brass ring.
Eddie Hazel – California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & The Papas cover)
Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs was the only solo album Eddie Hazel released in his lifetime. The P-Funk guitarist slowed down “California Dreamin’,” soloed all around and through it, and gave it the album’s leadoff slot. He may have played like his momma just died on “Maggot Brain,” but here it sounds more positive, like he’s anticipating the birth of spring.