The Mugwumps are best known as the band immortalized in autobiographical song by the Mamas & the Papas. Many know of them, but few have heard their one 1967 album for Warner Bros. Records. Until now, that is, as Collectors' Choice Music prepares its June 5 reissue of The Mugwumps' self-titled album.
"This was the first folk-rock group ever," Cass Elliot boasted to Johnny Carson about The Mugwumps. In a sense it's true. Born of the late Greenwich Village folk scene just as many of its proponents prepared to colonize Laurel Canyon, the band consisted of Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty (later of the Mamas & the Papas), Zalman Yanovsky (future guitarist for the Lovin' Spoonful) and Jim Hendricks. A small amount of cross-pollination occurred in the group's formation: Cass and her erstwhile husband Jim had been in Cass Elliot & the Big Three, a progressive folk outfit. Canadians Denny and Zal hailed from The Haliax Three, a more traditional folk trio. In early '64, Zal and Denny launched a rock alter ego called The Noise. Also in '64, Cass introduced Zal to John Sebastian by claiming Ringo Starr was with her. A historic connection was made as Zal and John went off to form the Lovin' Spoonful, while Cass and Denny joined John & Michelle Phillips to form the Mamas & the Papas, who pioneered rock's "California Dreamin'" era.
The Mugwumps' name was given to them by producer Erik Jacobsen, who heard them at the skid row flophouse known as the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village, where the members made their home. A mugwump is a fence-sitter who can't make up his mind – mug on one side, wump on the other side.
The Washington Post noted the group was "attempting a new sound." Another review described Cass as a "large young gal dressed in a leopard-skin muu muu." The description continued of the guys: "One wore his hair combed forward over his brow à la a Beatle. Another looked like you or me except for sideburns which grew at least half way to his chin. Another looked like Paul of Peter, Paul & Mary fame." As they played, the critic noted, "the men plucked glistening electric guitars with great vehemence and the one with the Beatle mop moved his head back and forth like a Dupont Circle pigeon spying a crust of bread."
Cited in the reissue's liner notes by Richard Barton Campbell, Denny Doherty was quoted as saying: "Picture this group: Zalman Yanovksy, free lance Jew; me from Halifax, the weird Irishman playing bass; this 300 pound Cass; we've got Art Stokes, black kid on drums; Jim Hendricks on guitar, John Sebastian sometimes sitting on a stool playing harmonica, and we called ourselves The Mugwumps! We went electric a year before Dylan. Everybody went, 'What!? Get out of here!'"
Unfortunately, the Mugwumps era lasted only from July through November 1964, their one album recorded August 13 & 14, 1964, produced by Alan Lorber, who'd gone to see them at the behest of managers Roy Silver and Bob Covello.
In November 1964, they played their swan song performance at the Peppermint Lounge in New York.
Recalled Cass: "We were doing very sophisticated folksy stuff, but obviously 1964 wasn't the year for it. . . It was in a time warp. Just too much before its time."
Perhaps we can better understand the Mugwumps muse 43 years later, in 2007. At any rate, thanks to Collectors' Choice, we'll have the opportunity to try.