Rhino Factoids: Mama, Mary, and Ms. Mitchell
45 years ago today, ABC aired a TV special which brought together three of the most talented women in the “M” section of the Famous Musicians Phone Directory of 1969: Mama Cass, Mary Travers, and Joni Mitchell.
Okay, so maybe we’re stretching it a little bit by putting Ms. Travers in the “M” section – not to mention by suggesting that there might be such a thing as a Famous Musicians Phone Directory – but if such a publication did exist, we’d like to think that, if you tried just looking up “Mary,” you’d be directed to “See ‘Peter, Paul and Mary.” Moving on…
On June 26, 1969, The Mama Cass Television Program made its debut on ABC, one of two solo variety specials done by Cass Elliott during her career (the second, Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore, aired on CBS in 1973), and if you look beyond the musical guests, there was actually a fourth “M” involved in the proceedings: Martin Landau, who turned up on the special with his then-wife, Barbara Bain, doubtlessly as a bit of cross promotion for Mission: Impossible. But as for the segment featuring the aforementioned threesome, Ms. Mitchell kicks things off with a lovely acoustic rendition of a song which has proven to be one of her most enduring compositions: “Both Sides Now,” from the Clouds album, which had hit stores a little less than two months earlier.
From there, the focus shifts to Ms. Travers, who performs an exuberant version of Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die,” which Mary and her cohorts Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey had used as the opening track of 1966’s The Peter, Paul and Mary Album. While there’s nothing even remotely resembling smugness in Travers’ performance, one has to imagine that she viewed the opportunity to sing the song on the special as a way of taking it back a bit from Blood, Sweat & Tears, who were having a huge hit with it at the time.
To close out the segment, the trio joins forces – and harmonies – to deliver a cover of “I Shall Be Released,” a song which at that point was known by most folks for the version by The Band than by its writer, Bob Dylan, but it’s likely that the reason it found its way into these proceedings was due to the fact that Peter, Paul and Mary had covered it on their 1968 album, Late Again.
Given the lack of ratings success with attempts to revive the variety show over the past decade or two, it seems likely that we’ll never see the genre thrive again, but when you look back at these clips of Mama, Mary, and Ms. Mitchell teaming up and performing at their best, you can see why there are those who still mourn the format. Given the diversity of guests, you may not necessarily have known what you were going to get from week to week, but 45 years ago this evening, it’s clear that viewers got something truly wonderful.
In closing, here’s a playlist featuring the albums we referenced above, just to keep you in a folky, singer-songwriter-y frame of mind, so please enjoy “Peter, Paul, Mary, and Joni.”