About The Song

At the age of 19, Michelle Phillips had never seen snow. Coming unseasonably attired from balmy Los Angeles to an especially gelid New York winter in 1963, the young singer felt little in the way of enchantment towards the white shroud settling over the city. On walks around Manhattan with her new husband John Phillips, she pined for the warmer climes of the West Coast. Returning to a dank hotel room, her homesick reveries would turn into dreams of California. One night she was woken up by John, who had spent the past few hours transposing her misery and nostalgic yearning into a song. By this point Michelle had already grown weary of her husband’s drug-induced nocturnal bursts of creativity and tried to go back to sleep. “You’ll never regret it, I promise you,” he implored.

Within a few hours, the core melody, first verse — opening with Hemingway-esque line “All the leaves are brown/and the sky is grey”  — and refrain of what would become “California Dreamin’” were written. A second verse, in which the narrator admits to paying lip service at a church to escape the biting cold — a heathen in search of heating — was later added by Michelle. Imbued with such a disarming sense of loneliness and vulnerability, it was based on her own stop at St Patrick’s Cathedral days earlier.

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For two years the song had been seemingly filed away for a winter’s day. But in 1965, John and Michelle joined up with Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty to form The Mamas & the Papas; the band soon secured their first contract with Dunhill Records after a recommendation by another of the label’s artists, Barry McGuire (who had had a hit in 1965 with “Eve of Destruction”). To return the favour, the band invited their friend to record “California Dreamin’” himself, with the group providing backing accompaniment.

Their selflessness was almost instantly rewarded. Unconvinced by McGuire’s gruff, strained vocals,studio head Lou Adler asked the band to record their own versionwith Doherty as the lead singer and with a wistful (improvised) flute interludereplacing the former’s incongruous, bluesy harmonica solo.“I actually thought that must have been how George Martin felt after he heard The Beatles,” Adler later said of his first experience of hearing them sing. By the end of spring 1966, “California Dreamin’” had spent 17 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, peaking at number four.

Perhaps more than any song, “California Dreamin’” captured the modern mythology surrounding the West Coast — its title almost becoming a metonym for the pursuit of health, happiness and success. As the band themselves knowingly sang on “Creeque Alley”, their 1967 meta song chronicling their rapid rise to the top: “California dreamin’ is becoming a reality.”

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Lyrics

All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)
And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray)
I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk)
On a winter’s day (on a winter’s day)
I’d be safe and warm (I’d be safe and warm)
If I was in L.A. (if I was in L.A.)
California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day
Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my knees)
And I pretend to pray (I pretend to pray)
You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the cold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna stay)
California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day
All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)
And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray)
I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk)
On a winter’s day (on a winter’s day)
If I didn’t tell her (if I didn’t tell her)
I could leave today (I could leave today)
California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day