The Big 3 – The Big 3 (1963)

From 1962 to 1964 Tim Rose, John Hendricks and Cass Elliot captivated folk audiences as The Big 3.

There is this story about Mama Cass Elliot I recently read.  In 1965, when The Mamas and the Papas were first forming in the Virgin Islands, Cass, who had followed Denny Doherty down there but was not yet in the group, was working at a bar where her friends were regularly performing as The New Journeymen.  Well, the bar was doing renovations and adding a dance floor on to the space and during construction Cass was hit on the head by a falling copper pipe.  The pipe knocked her out cold and she was rushed to the hospital where she was examined, and it was determined that she had a concussion.  However, in a few weeks after her headaches cleared up Cass discovered something amazing.  Already gifted with a powerful and unique singing voice, suddenly Cass had the ability to sing another three octives higher than before the accident, increasing her already impressive vocal range!

Is it a legend, or did this really happen?  Cass claimed it was true in interviews, but others say that it was her way of explaining why it took her so long for John Phillips to allow her to join the group.  But whether it was true or not, long before the accident with the copper pipe, Cass Elliott always had an incredible voice and star power.    Cass’ distinct vocal power was put to vinyl a couple of years prior to “California Dreamin’ becoming a reality,” and folk music fans in the know had already met her as part of a folk trio called The Big 3.  Formed in 1962, The Big 3 got Cass and her bandmates Jim Hendricks and Tim Rose some national exposure and became her first step to becoming one of the most colourful and memorable figures in pop culture history.

Without a band photo on the front jacket of their debut album, its easy to pass by The Big 3 when crate diving. But on the picture on the back, the distinct image of Cass Elliot is immediatly recognizable.

I stumbled across a copy of The Big 3’s debut album early on in my move to Ottawa at a quiet record shop which was about to close business.  I’ll admit if the strange cover hadn’t caught my curiosity, I would have passed it without having any idea of the gem I had just come across.  It’s a strange cover which I find forgettable at first, but the more you look at it, the more appealing and interesting it becomes.  A simple giant orange number 3 made up of checkers which is poorly contrasted on a purple background is all that is on the front jacket. But, as you continue to look at the numerical figure, you realize it’s an optical illusion of its own which turns into a letter “B.”  Do you see a “3” or do you see a “B”, or do you see both?  It’s kind of cool but perhaps the art designer got so caught up in their cleverness that they failed at put both the band’s photo and name on the jacket, which makes it easy to miss.  I’m glad I took the minute to look at it because when I turned the album over Cass Elliott’s image was undeniable!  I was aware of The Big 3’s existence, but I hadn’t ever heard them before.  This was a fantastic, rare find!  Score!

Now just to make sure there isn’t any confusion, Cass, Hendricks and Rose were The Big 3 and not The Big Three.  The Big Three were a Liverpool based band which Cilla Black started singing with and was part of Brian Epstein’s stable of groups which had some success in England, but never made it in North America.  You can tell the difference because the British group spells out the number, the American folk group uses the numerical figure. 

Cass Elliot’s high school year book photo, circa 1961.

Despite the way the narrative became popularized in the Mamas and the Papas 1965 hit “Creeque Alley,” which is actually filled with historical inaccuracies most likely to streamline the story to keep it short enough for a single, the beginning of Cass’ music career was a lot more eventful than presented.  Growing up in Baltimore, Cass dropped out of high school just prior to graduation and headed to New York City to pursue a career in acting.  Working in coffee shops in Greenwich Village to keep her afloat, she got a part in the 1962 Broadway production of “The Music Man.”  After that show ended, she got an audition for a new show called “I Can Get it For You Wholesale” for the role of Miss Marmelstein but was disappointed to find out that the role went to an unknown performer named Barbra Streisand.  Out of work and running out of money, Cass put her theatrical dreams behind her and headed back to Maryland, where she enrolled into American University in Washington, DC.

Originally from Virginia, Tim Rose was a former air force pilot turned folk musician.

It was while attending university that Cass met singer/songwriter Tim Rose at a party in Georgetown. A former air force pilot, Rose had been drifting through various musical groups in the folk scene but currently had no band.  Tim and Cass, along with Tim’s friend John Brown, jammed out a couple of songs and decided to form a group together which they called The Triumverate (not to be mistaken for the future German prog rock band Triynverat) and soon started out on the road playing folks clubs and concerts.  However, during a stop in Omaha, Nebraska, John Brown quit the band and Cass and Rose picked up Jim Hendricks.

Although it may seem obvious, Jim Hendricks (right) has often been cited as being Jimi Hendrix (left) in various stories. Don’t get them confused.

Now, don’t mix up Jim Hendricks with Jimi Hendrix (this is becoming a theme with this group).  You might think it’s an obvious difference but, believe me, I’ve seen sources that have confused these two guys as being the one and the same although they couldn’t be more different.  A good looking mild mannered school teacher from Atkinson, Nebraska, Hendricks played folk guitar on weekends as a hobby in pick up shows and jam sessions.  When he caught Cass’ attention during a performance, Cass invited Hendricks to join her and Rose as they headed for New York City.  Now as a trio again, they changed their name to The Big 3.

Regularly appearing on stage at the Greenwich Village hot spot The Bitter End, The Big 3 got national exposure on “The Tonight Show,” “Hootenanny” and “The Danny Kate Show.”

Arriving back in Cass’ old stomping ground of Greenwich Village, which was now the folk music capital of the world, the group got a regular gig performing at the now famous folk music hot spot The Bitter End.  With tight harmonies and a wholesome image, The Big 3 made a big impression.  But as the trio sang together without putting anybody out in front, even at that time Cass Elliot was the most outstanding member of the group.  With her large physique, she stood out from other female performers, such as Bitter End regular Joni Mitchell, who were far smaller than her making her stand out in a crowd.  This physical characteristic would be both a blessing and a curse to Cass for the rest of her life.  But with a big voice and personality to match her size, she became an instant crowd pleaser.  Although she sang the spirited harmonies in unison with her band mates, she also had the ability to carry entire songs on her own.  She was an unorthodox star in the making. For an early example of Cass’ solo ability check out the grim dirge “Young Girl’s Lament.” It’s a moving early glimpse of the Cass the world was soon to fall in love with, which I consider to be amongst the finest recordings in her entire body of work.

By the end of the year The Big 3 were gaining attention on the Greenwich folk scene and were booked to make their first television appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”  The performance sealed The Big 3 on the Greenwich scene, and the group got signed to the small New York City label FM, which specialized in releasing jazz and folk albums.  The first album, “The Big 3” led to additional television appearances on “Hootenany” and “The Danny Kaye Show” and a single was released for “The Banjo Song” backed with “Winkin, Blinkin and Nod.”

“The Banjo Song” is actually a really interesting reworking of the traditional American folk song “Oh! Susannah!” but if you close your eyes and take a listen you can hear the distinct chord progression which strangely sounds like that later used in The Shocking Blues’ 1969 hit “Venus.”  Take a listen for yourself.  It’s uncanny.

The Big 3 – Live From the Recording Studio (1964)

But, despite positive reviews, a growing audience and national television appearance, “The Banjo Song” didn’t hit the charts, and the album generated nearly no attention.  But The Big 3 were still considered a lucrative live act and were traveling to the West coast and back again.  A second album was released in 1964 titled “Live at the Recording Studio,” with an additional single, “Come Away Melinda” backed with “The Rider,” which was the first track on their debut album.  This time the label had the good sense to put the band’s photo on the font cover, but it didn’t really help much.  Despite their popularity with audiences, once again the album and single got little attention.

Meanwhile, things were not as harmonious within the band as they were when they sang together.  Cass Elliott and Tim Rose were both type A personalities and the pair butted heads both creatively and personally while Jim Hendricks played middleman between the two dominate members.  So, when Hendricks got his notice that he was to be drafted into the army in 1964, he and Cass went and got married on the fly in order to prevent his one way ticket to the quickly escalating conflict in Viet Nam (prior to 1965 married men were exempt from the draft).  Although the rumor is that Hendricks and Cass never consummated their marriage, which was annulled in 1968, Rose was unhappy with the whole affair and decided he was now the “odd man out” and was outnumbered by their union, whether it was legitimate or not.  During a trip to California, Rose quit the band and The Big 3 officially dissolved.

Tim Rose quit The Big 3 in 1964 and pursued a solo career. Far more successful in the UK than America, he released fourteen solo albums..

Tim Rose continued performing as a solo artist, and had limited success in North America, performing as an opener for the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane and Love, but he would gain far more fame in the UK.  He released eleven albums on his own between 1967and 2002 with another three being released posthumously. and but didn’t generate any major Billboard hits.  However, legend has it that British fashion model Linda Keith brought Rose’s 1966 recording of the traditional blues song “Hey Joe,” which became a minor hit in the UK, to The Animals’ bass player Chas Chandler, who was at the time managing The Jimi Hendrix Experience, who suggested they give their own spin on the song thus creating one of their most iconic numbers.  Tim Rose died of a heart attack while touring the UK in 2002 at age 62,

Upon Rose leaving The Big 3, Cass and Hendricks were now The Unemployed 2, but their story was far from over.  While still in California, Cass caught wind of another pair of struggling folk musicians whose band had also just broken up – Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky – and the four would make some interesting music of their own.

A final footnote to The Big 3 is that sometime around 1967 Roulette Records purchased the original tracks from FM and released a compilation album titled “The Big Three Featuring Mama Cass” to attempt to capitalize on Cass’ stardom.  However, the album was a cheaply compiled package featuring a tacky caricature of Cass and no images of Rose or Hendricks on the album at all.  Even worse, they didn’t even bother to get the band name correct (remember – it’s “3”, not “Three”).  Even with Cass being one of the biggest music stars on the scene during its release, the album once again didn’t sell nor help popularize the music of the now defunct folk band.  An insulting coda to a gifted group.

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