The Mamas & the Papas released a total of five studio albums and seventeen singles over a four-year period, six of which made the Billboard top ten, and have sold close to 40 million records worldwide. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for their contributions to the music industry. The band reunited briefly in 1971 to record the album People Like Us but did not perform outside their recording studio at that time.
The group was formed by husband and wife John and Michelle Phillips, formerly of the New Journeymen, and Denny Doherty, formerly of the Mugwumps. Both of these earlier acts were folk groups active from 1964 to 1965. The last member to join was Cass Elliot, Doherty's bandmate in the Mugwumps, who had to overcome John Phillips' concern that her voice was too low for his arrangements, that her physical appearance would be an obstacle to the band's success, and that her temperament was incompatible with his. The group considered calling itself the Magic Cyrcle before switching to the Mamas and the Papas as apparently inspired by the Hells Angels, whose female associates were called "mamas".
The quartet spent the period from early spring to midsummer 1965 in the Virgin Islands "to rehearse and just put everything together", as John Phillips later recalled. Phillips acknowledged that he was reluctant to abandon folk music. Others, including Doherty and guitarist Eric Hord, have said he hung on to it "like death". Roger McGuinn's more measured view is that "It was hard for John to break out of folk music, because I think he was real good at it, conservative, and successful, too." Phillips also acknowledged that it was Doherty and Elliot who awakened him to the potential of contemporary pop, as epitomized by the Beatles. While previously, the New Journeymen had played acoustic folk, with banjo; and the Mugwumps played something closer to folk rock, with bass and drums. Their rehearsals in the Virgin Islands were "the first time that we tried playing electric".
The band then traveled from New York to Los Angeles for an audition with Lou Adler, co-owner of Dunhill Records. The audition was arranged by Barry McGuire, who had befriended Cass Elliot and John Phillips independently over the previous two years, and who had recently signed with Dunhill himself. It led to "a deal in which they would record two albums a year for the next five years", with a royalty of 5 percent on 90 percent of retail sales. Dunhill also tied the band to management and publishing deals, commonly known as a "triple hat" relationship. Cass Elliot's membership was not formalized until the paperwork was signed, with Adler, Michelle Phillips, and Doherty overruling John Phillips.
The Mamas and the Papas made their inaugural recording singing backing vocals on McGuire's album This Precious Time, although they had already released a single of their own by the time the album appeared in December 1965. This single was "Go Where You Wanna Go", which was given a limited release in November but failed to chart. There are few copies of this single extant and the follow-up, "California Dreamin'", has the same B-side, suggesting that "Go Where You Wanna Go" had been withdrawn. "California Dreamin'" was released in December, supported by a full-page ad in Billboard on the 18th of that month. It peaked at number four in the United States and number twenty-three in the United Kingdom. "Go Where You Wanna Go" was subsequently covered by the 5th Dimension, who included it on their album Up, Up and Away and it became a Top 20 pop hit for them.