“California Dreamin’,” “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Monday, Monday.”
Three familiar songs to any fan of folk rock from the 1960s, these were all global hits that reached the top five in the Billboard charts. The creators of these songs, a band by the name of The Mamas & The Papas, were a pop culture phenomenon, capturing the attention of people all over the world. However, their time as a group was cut short in the late ’60s due to clashes between band the members: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty.
Richard B. Campbell ’89, who was a fan of the band from a young age, was intrigued by their history. While he was in high school in the early 1980s, he began to research how the members came together to form The Mamas & The Papas. Thanks to his research, Campbell has developed relationships with surviving band members and their families, even becoming known as a leading expert in the band’s history. Michelle Phillips calls him “the Keeper of the Flame.” He was involved as a consultant in the production of A&E’s “Biography,” Lifetime’s “Intimate Portrait,” VH1’s “Behind the Music” and Denny Doherty’s “Dream a Little Dream — the Nearly True Story of the Mamas & The Papas.”
All this is alongside his day job — serving as a circuit court judge in Richmond, Virginia.
A history major at William & Mary, Campbell enjoyed archival research and spent much of his spare time looking for any information that he could find about the band’s history at W&M’s Swem Library and at Virginia Commonwealth University’s library as well.
“I’ve always sort of been a researcher, I think, by love or by nature,” Campbell says.
After graduating from W&M, Campbell studied law at the University of Richmond and received his juris doctor in 1993. In the late ’90s, Campbell was contacted by the Varèse Sarabande record label to write liner notes for a CD reissue of the group’s music, titled “The Magic Circle.” His job consisted of researching individuals listed as collaborators on the records and setting up interviews.
“I was researching who people were, what their role was, who they knew, and it really just began to set up a web of connected folks,” says Campbell.
Soon, Campbell had built relationships with enough people close to the band that he began to be approached to help with documentaries, television shows and various other projects.
He would also help bandmates get in touch with members of previous groups they had been in and musicians or other collaborators that they had lost track of over time.
Thanks to his work, Campbell became one of the first points of reference when anyone in the band needed assistance with a project or getting into contact with other members. For example, Campbell says, “It started out as interviewing them and talking with them, then it moved into meeting them in person as I was at a couple of Denny’s shows 20 years ago. And then I started helping him at a distance with the show and some concepts.”
Campbell has also connected with the children of the band members, including Cass Elliot’s daughter, whom he has begun helping with research for an upcoming biography and documentary about her mother. Now, he says, “The friendship almost became as meaningful as the interest in their family.”
Building relationships with the band’s families was a rewarding part of the research process, Campbell says. “I think one thing that also motivated me and sustained me was that this was a part of their history personally and I wanted to give that gift not only for the legacy of their music, but for their families.”
Now, he has finally been able to put pen to paper and tell the band’s story.
After 40 years of research and dedication, Campbell published his debut book, “Gettin’ Kinda Itchie – The Groups That Made The Mamas & The Papas,” this past August. It is being carried by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s store and is also available from online retailers.
The band’s rise to fame and later disbandment has been well documented, but Campbell’s book takes a different approach by exploring how The Mamas & The Papas came together, including the various bands that members were in beforehand, such as The Colonials, The Halifax Three, The Triumvirate, The Big 3 and The Journeymen, who performed at William & Mary in 1963.
“It was very painstaking, but I literally went from 1958 to 1965 and through a variety of permutations would meticulously go through each group, each person, each venue and kind of put together backwards, if you will, timelines and concert appearances and also trace down names that way,” Campbell says.
He explains that although he was quite passionate about the work he was doing, it challenged him as a writer and as a historian. Since the information he was compiling came from multiple sources, Campbell says he had to focus on getting these stories to line up in a cohesive way.
“When you get up against a Gordian knot like that, sometimes as a writer you just want to throw up your hands,” he says.
Still, he persevered until he accomplished his goal.
“A lot of the stories have been in my head. The research was on the computer. But to start to synthesize it and see it come together as a whole has been satisfying,” Campbell says. “The book is replete with illustrations — it’s got 400 images in it — and a lot of those, the vast majority, come from my collection. So, it was kind of like pulling back the curtain or opening up the box and being able to share with a lot of people this collection that was just in boxes and files.”
Campbell explains that he had planned to write a book for a long time, but he knew that if he did, he wanted to tell an aspect of the band’s history that had not been fully explored.
“I think the story of The Mamas & The Papas from ’65 to ’68 has been told a lot. But this particular part of the story, I felt had never been given its due. It’s never been put together, just by itself, in this depth, ever. I kind of always knew that if I ever wrote anything, that is what I would write about,” he says.
Campbell hopes that people who read his book are able to gain a better appreciation not only for the time period, “but also these individuals who were coming from very different places, and in some ways unlikely places. Certainly, I hope it maybe makes somebody go and look up the music, because it is very beautiful music. It is a precursor to the sound that they gain when they become The Mamas & The Papas.”
Last year, Campbell attended the ceremony for Cass Elliot’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star as a guest of Elliot‘s daughter, and currently is also helping John Phillips’ son, Jeffery, compile a complete catalog of his compositions.
“It seems like there’s always a new project happening, which is fun,” Campbell says. “Because I’ve been at it so long, usually when something starts percolating, they call me.”