♫ Creeque Alley ♫

I had a few ideas for today’s music post, but frankly last night I was really in the mood for some Mamas and Papas music!  I chose this one because a) I like it, like the camaraderie, and b) I have only played it once, back in 2019!

At that time, I couldn’t find much verifiable trivia in my two usual ‘go-to’ sources, SongFacts and Wikipedia, so I delved deeper, went further afield, and hit the jackpot!  I apologize for the length of the post, but I found the trivia fascinating … all news to me … and I thought/hoped you would, too.  If not, then just skip to da song!

From a website titled Best Classic Bands

Numerous autobiographical songs have been written since the dawn of rock, but few have told the story of a band’s formation as vividly and colorfully as The Mamas and the Papas’ “Creeque Alley.” Released as a single in late April 1967, it climbed to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100; it also appeared on the quartet’s third album, Deliver, which itself rose to #2.

The song, credited to the group’s husband-and-wife co-founders John and Michelle Phillips, chronicles the events leading up to the 1965 creation of the Mamas and the Papas, which also included Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. The lyrics are stocked with names and places, some of which may have been (and still are) unfamiliar to fans of the group. We’ll break it down.

First, there’s the song’s title. Creeque (pronounced creaky) Alley is a real place, one of a series of alleys (actually named Creeque’s Alley and owned by the Creeque family) on the docks on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The soon-to-be members of the Mamas and the Papas spent time there shortly before changing their musical direction and taking on their new name. There they were still performing folk music, at a club called Sparky’s Waterfront Saloon, and basically trying to make ends meet and figure out their futures.

The song’s story line only makes passing reference to the Mamas and the Papas’ time on the island though, and never mentions Creeque Alley by name. It starts in the years leading up to the seemingly preordained coalescence of the four singers.

The first line, “John and Mitchy were getting’ kind of itchy just to leave the folk music behind,” refers to John and Michelle’s activities as folk singers in the early ’60s. John Phillips, then 26, had been singing with a folk group called the Journeymen when he met 17-year-old Michelle Gilliam during a tour stop in San Francisco. They fell in love and, after John divorced his first wife, married on Dec. 31, 1962, moving to New York where they began writing songs together while Michelle did modeling work to earn some cash. By late 1964, with the rock scene exploding, John and Michelle had become, like many others, “itchy” to move away from folk. It wasn’t all that easy, they quickly discovered, and the couple, along with Doherty formed the New Journeymen in the meantime. (Trivia note: Early New Journeymen member Marshall Brickman, who was replaced by Doherty, went on to co-write some of Woody Allen’s best-known films and won an Oscar for Annie Hall.)

In the meantime, other similarly inclined folk artists were coming into one another’s orbits. First, there were “Zal and Denny, workin’ for a penny, tryin’ to get a fish on a line,” which refers to Zal Yanovsky and Dennis (known as Denny) Doherty. Both Canadians, they’d been working together in a folk trio called the Halifax Three in their home country. “In a coffeehouse Sebastian sat” brings into the picture John Sebastian, the New York City-born singer-songwriter who at the time was part of the Even Dozen Jug Band and would soon form one of the most beloved American rock bands of the era. And then there were “McGuinn and McGuire, just a gettin’ higher in L.A., you know where that’s at.” McGuinn, of course, was Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, whose group the Byrds would vault to the top of the charts with their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the late spring of ’65, while McGuire was Barry, whose rendition of P.F. Sloan’s protest song “Eve of Destruction” struck a nerve that summer, also catapulting to the #1 position.

The first verse leaves off with a name-drop of the fourth member of the Mamas and the Papas: “And no one’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass.” Cass Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen), originally from Baltimore, she also had a background in folk music when she came to the attention of the other folkies in the song. She’d sung in a trio called the Big 3 with Tim Rose and Cass’ husband, James Hendricks (not to be confused with New York scene regular Jimi Hendrix), but like the others she saw the proverbial writing on the wall and wanted to expand her range of music. The “gettin’ fat” remark has a double meaning, however: not only was Elliot physically large but she was the only future M&P member who was making a decent living with her music, singing jazz in the Washington, D.C., area.

The second verse begins with a couple of mutual compliments: “Zally said, ‘Denny, you know there aren’t many who can sing a song the way that you do, let’s go south.’ Denny said, ‘Zally, golly, don’t you think that I wish I could play guitar like you?’” And so they headed south from Canada, soon finding themselves at a popular club in New York’s Greenwich Village: “Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl), and after every number they’d pass the hat.” (More trivia: The Night Owl would become the home base of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian and Yanovsky’s group, and much later on would be the site of the famed New York record store Bleecker Bob’s.)

Meanwhile, McGuinn and McGuire were “still a-gettin’ higher in L.A.” and Mama Cass was still “gettin’ fat,” but no one had yet found their destinies.

Verse three gives us some more background on Cass’ run-up to joining the group. She was planning to attend college at Swarthmore, the song says, but instead hitchhiked to New York to see if she could make it in the music world. (Trivia note: Cass never planned to go to Swarthmore—she wanted to attend Goucher College near her hometown of Baltimore. But John Phillips needed a rhyme so he used sophomore and Swarthmore.) Upon her arrival in NYC, she met Denny Doherty and fell in love with him.

“Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps” adds the next piece to the puzzle: The Mugwumps were a folk quintet formed in 1964 featuring Elliot, Doherty, Sebastian, Yanovsky and Hendricks. (The John here refers to Sebastian, not Phillips.)

The Mugwumps recorded enough material to be compiled into an album in 1967, which did not feature Sebastian, but the group was short-lived as its members were also “itchy to leave the folk music behind.” The next verse ties up the loose ends and takes us to the point where everyone is on the verge of fame: “Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful; Michelle, John and Denny getting’ very tuneful; McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin’ fire in L.A., you know where that’s at.”

And there you have it: the various figures peel away from folk and move into what was then called folk-rock: Sebastian and Yanovsky teamed with bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler in the Lovin’ Spoonful; the Phillipses, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty became the Mamas and the Papas; McGuinn led the Byrds for several years; and McGuire had a chart-topping hit as a solo artist. In fact, says a previous verse, “McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher and that’s what they were aimin’ at.”)

“And everybody’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass,” goes the final line in that verse, inferring that success had arrived. But there’s some unfinished business, that matter of the time spent at Creeque Alley.

The last chorus/verse informs us that it wasn’t overnight success for the Mamas and the Papas by any means. It’s here, at the end of the song, that the scene shifts to the Virgin Islands. The singers, still called the New Journeymen and minus Cass at first (as the song said, they “knew she’d come eventually”) are cash-poor and borrowing on their American Express cards. They’re “broke, busted, disgusted,” but thanks to some help from a fellow named Hugh Duffy, who owned a boarding house in Creeque’s Alley, the four young singers who would soon be known worldwide were able to start thinking about their future: “Duffy’s good vibrations and our imaginations can’t go on indefinitely,” they sing toward the end of “Creeque Alley.” So the four returned briefly to New York, then all headed out to Southern California to see if they could catch a break.

“And California Dreaming is becoming a reality” is the final line of the song. We all know what that one means.

The song, released in 1967, charted at #1 in Canada, #5 in the U.S., and #9 in the UK.

Creeque Alley
The Mamas & the Papas

John and Mitchy were gettin’ kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind
Zal and Denny workin’ for a penny
Tryin’ to get a fish on the line
In a coffee house Sebastian sat
And after every number they’d pass the hat
McGuinn and McGuire just a gettin’ higher
In L.A., you know where that’s at
And no one’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass

Zally said Denny, you know there aren’t many
Who can sing a song the way that you do, let’s go south
Denny said Zally, golly, don’t you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you
Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they’d pass the hat
McGuinn and McGuire still a gettin’ higher
In L.A., you know where that’s at
And no one’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day
Standin’ on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike
Take me to New York right away
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps
McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher
But that’s what they were aimin’ at
And no one’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps
Don’t you work as hard as you play
Make up, break up, everything is shake up
Guess it had to be that way
Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful
Michelle, John, and Denny gettin’ very tuneful
McGuinn and McGuire just a catchin’ fire
In L.A., you know where that’s at
And everybody’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass
Di di di dit dit dit di di di dit, whoa

Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can’t be trusted
And Mitchy wants to go to the sea
Cass can’t make it, she says we’ll have to fake it
We knew she’d come eventually
Greasin’ on American Express cards
It’s low rent, but keeping out the heat’s hard
Duffy’s good vibrations and our imaginations
Can’t go on indefinitely
And California dreamin’ is becomin’ a reality

Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: John Edmund Andrew Phillips / Michelle Gilliam
Creeque Alley lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

38 thoughts on “♫ Creeque Alley ♫

  1. Pingback: ♫ Eight Miles High ♫ | Filosofa's Word

      • Sometimes you just drift away from a band.
        I did hear their original Go Where You Want To Go’ and loved that. Thought ‘California Dreaming’ and ‘Monday Monday’ were superb, but after that……
        Maybe it was that Velvet Underground and Steppenwolf thing I had going…..

        Liked by 1 person

        • They certainly are not in the same class as VU or Steppenwolf, but this is why I don’t feel they should be compared. I loved the Mama’s and Papa’s for what they did, and in particular this song (as I mentioned above). They didn’t do much social commentary, but they did entertain.
          The Velvet Underground, maybe because of their name, were big on Underground Radio, but got no play at all on AM Top Fifty radio. Steppenwolf crossed over a bit with their big hits, but they had so much more to offer — as did a lot of bands of the day. I wasn’t a Deadhead, but at least I heard them on Underground Radio. AM would not touch them at all for some reason!

          Liked by 2 people

  2. Love me some Creeque Alley.
    One reference your sourse may have missed: “McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher
    But that’s what they were aimin’ at” is the connection of McGuinn to The Byrds most recenent release at the time, “Eight Miles High.” That song was expected to take The Byrds to the top of the recording industry, except that someone labelled it a drug song and after it was banned in several major American markets it stalled at #14 on the Billboard charts. John and Michelle did not anticipate the Byrds fall when they wrote Creeque Alley.
    While I am not sure if you will like this song, Jill, as it was one of the earlust recording to go “psychedelic ” hopefully some of your readers will like it.

    This song actually ended up as the first crack in The Byrds downfall, as it caused the departure of the song’s lyricist Gene Clark from the band. A very interesting story about “Eight Miles High” can be found here: https://www.loudersound.com/features/the-story-behind-the-byrds-psychedelic-masterpiece-eight-miles-high

    Still, despite what happened to the Byrds, Creeque Alley is my favourite Mammas and Paps song because, as I mentioned in your original post, our folk scene up in Canada already knew all the stories up to that point, and hearing them all put together in one song was something we all appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ‘Eight Miles High’ one of my most favourite songs of those years. Being brit it was quite obvious to me the lyrics were about their time in London……Of course Crosby would say it was about drugs at some time. Great artist, annoying fellow.
      Thanks for the link.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I found the story really interesting, and had no idea it led to Gene Clark leaving the Byrds. They had a few more hits after, but they weren’t the same band without him.
        And, having not heard Eight Miles High for a long long time, either I had forgotten or just never realized at the time that it was psychedielic, which is my all-time favourite genre of music. (60s Pschedelic, that is. Not that mostly garbage stuff they pawn off as psychedelic today.) At the time I actually never thought of the Byrds as psychedic. But listening now, I was blown away.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The history of bands are often filled with contradictions, but it seems Gene Clark’s leaving had been building up for a while.
          An irony of that song being according to some accounts he had quite a fear of flying.
          They did go through something of a psychedelic phrase…Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrds Brothers being arguably the two examples – then they side stepped suddenly into ‘country’

          Liked by 1 person

          • Lol. I was too busy hitchhiking around Canada and the USA in those days to hear all the albums that were put out. If they weren’t being played on underground FM radio, then I seldom got to hear them, except for the AM stuff I heard sitting in stranger’s cars when I was lucky to get a ride. Ohhh,those were the days.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Back in those days UK radio was pretty much locked into either the charts or if it was underground it was UK underground, with one or two DJs keeping me alert to what was going on in the USA.
              I often bought an album based on the vibe I got from the album cover, or some other feeling…..
              Worked pretty well.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Lol. I had no money to buy albums, or anywhere to listen to them, let alone store them. I had my little FM transistor radio, and I shoplifted batteries for it whenever I needed them. That radio was my connection to the world for years. I loved underground radio. I wish we still had it.

                Liked by 2 people

                • Agreed. We had pirate radio station, which were small ships located outside of the UK territorial waters so got around the restrictions on non-commercial broadcasting back then.
                  But on reflection, that was just a lot of guys playing at being outlaws, imitating US styles and playing whatever then were sent to play.
                  UK- There was a lot of hi-jinks and insincerity in those days.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Yeah, I remember hearing about Pirate Radio in England and Europe. There may have been similaritires to Underground usicin North America, but I cannot say for sure. U drgroud music, played strictly o FM when the general public knew nothing about FM ywas the place to hear the real ushic of the 60s.

                    Liked by 2 people

                    • My tablet keeps freezing when I try to write about Underground Music. I’m getting paranoid. I could not proofread, or finish, the above comme t. I was lucky I was able to publush it at all. Now this is the 3rd time I am trying to complete what I wanted to write. I will publish it, if I can, wherever it freezes up.
                      Underground Radio was where we heard the mysic they refused to play on

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Yep. A lot of stuff which made the charts was not in that category. Some of the chart stuff was sheer fun so I give those a free pass, but some was too contrived….even if the writers and singers weren’t aware of it.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Pop music is what it is, and always will be: Entertainment. On my own blog I have been highlighting those songs that hit the charts because they made people think, or at least tried to. If I could remember more of the album stuff that accomplished those goals I might start featuring them, but my memory has so many holes in it. And my record collection vanished from moving around continuously. What I wouldn’t do to have all those albums back.

                      Liked by 2 people

        • Nah … get some sleep, for the post won’t be out ’til 11:00 a.m. my time, which I believe is 8:00 a.m. your time, so you can sleep first. Oh … by the way … I read tonight that there are over 100 wildfires burning in Alberta now … are any of them close to you? Take care, dear friend, and keep safe.


          • First things first. Two hours behind you, not three.
            Next: No wildfires nearby, but we have people evacuated from Rainbow Lake to the west and from Fox Lake to the east camped out in our town. Our population tripled in two days. If a fire starts near us that’s a hekkuva lot of people who have to be moved. So fingers are crossed nothing new starts up. Altogether, at one point 35,000 people had been evacuated from a number of towns and rural areas in the province. I have not heard today’s figures yet but they were supposed to drop a little.
            The worst news, the temperature is supposed to go into the 90s again this week and still no rain in sight. Things can get much worse than they are.

            Liked by 1 person

            • My mistake. I always think of our West Coast, which is 3 hours behind us, and I think since you live in Western Canada … well, I’ll try to remember next time.

              I’m glad the wildfires aren’t near you and I hope it stays that way! I wish I could send you some of our rain!!!


              • We can use it. We had rain ONE DAY this spring, that lasted about half-an-hour. Please, send us your rain. (You’ll have to send it the long way around, though, via Europe and Asia. We get East winds so seldom it isn’t worth talking about!)
                As for the time differential, think Montana. They are directly south of us.

                Liked by 1 person

                • One day??? That’s it? We’ve had rain, probably 3 out of every 4 days all year thus far. Today is sunny, as was yesterday, and it’s the first I remember this year of having 2 consecutive sunny days! Sure, I’ll blow those clouds back toward the northwest! Okay … got it … map is firmly implanted into my brain now! I thought you were further west.


                  • Further west is the Rocky Mountains, or the Pacific coast. I would prefer either one, but we ended up here. It is actually supposed to be the most geologically safe place on Earth, but with the fracking for oil, even we are getting earthquakes now. Few people seem to care. Oil is money. I prefer safety.

                    Liked by 1 person

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