LOS ANGELES—John Phillips, the singer-songwriter-arranger who led the Mamas and the Papas to the forefront of pop music in the mid-'60s and helped define the California sound and spirit, died Sunday. Phillips, who received a liver transplant in 1992, died of heart failure at the UCLA Medical Center. He was 65.
The Mamas and the Papas -- Phillips, his then-wife, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot -- made the Top 10 in 1966 with their first single, "California Dreamin'." The record's rich vocal blend and its image of the Golden State as a "safe and warm" refuge became a part of the growing California mystique.
"Besides being one of the great American pop songwriters, along with Brian Wilson, John is one of the best vocal arrangers of the past 50 years," said Adler, who signed the group to his Dunhill Records label, produced their records and also managed them.
"When we went into the studio, each time we added another layer I was astounded by what came over the speakers. He did so many vocal gymnastics with their voices. That's a talent he may not be known for, but when you listen to those arrangements, that truly is great stuff."
The Mamas and the Papas were part of a westward migration by Greenwich Village folk musicians that also included Roger McGuinn (the Byrds) and John Sebastian (the Lovin' Spoonful), who contributed to Los Angeles' emergence as the creative and commercial center of pop music in the '60s.
Phillips, the son of a career Marine, was born on a military base on Parris Island, S.C., and briefly attended the U.S. Naval Academy before moving to New York in 1957. He formed a folk group called the Journeymen, which made three albums, and in 1962 he married model Michelle Gilliam, a 16-year-old California native 10 years his junior. She joined him in a new Journeymen lineup that also included Doherty, and when they moved to California they added Elliot, who had been in a group called the Mugwumps with Doherty. Through another old friend, singer Barry McGuire, they got an audition with Adler.
The Mamas and the Papas had five more Top 10 hits in their brief, two-year career, including "Monday, Monday" and "Dedicated to the One I Love." They appeared at the landmark 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, of which Adler and Phillips were the chief organizers, then broke up amid personal tensions and exhaustion. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Elliot died in 1974.
Phillips released a solo album, "John Phillips: The Wolfking of L.A.," in 1970, and wrote some music for movies. But Phillips, who married actress Genevieve Waite after his divorce from Michelle Phillips, became less active as his addictions to heroin and cocaine worsened.
He was arrested for trafficking in narcotics in 1981, but stopped his drug use after going through rehabilitation. He later re-formed the Mamas and the Papas with different personnel, including one of his daughters, actress MacKenzie Phillips, and original member Doherty. His five children also include singer Chynna Phillips and singer-model Bijou Phillips.
Phillips, who had been living in Palm Springs and Lake Tahoe, recently completed two albums: a new collection tentatively titled "Slow Starter" and a record he began in the mid -'70s with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as producers. That album, "Pay, Pack and Follow," will be released in May.
"He considered himself a real Southern gentleman," his friend Adler said Sunday. "His background was Indian, and he had a lot of soulful, spiritual influences that he liked to call on. Somehow he overrode them a lot and he got the best of them a lot. John was not afraid to live. That's what it was all about for him, pushing the envelope, going over the boundaries. He did it one or two times too many, obviously, and suffered for it. He was a lot of different guys."
Phillips is survived by his wife, Farnaz, his three daughters, sons Jeffrey and Tamerlane and stepdaughters Atoosa and Sanaz.