Denny Doherty

Genre-crossing singer with the Mamas and the Papas


Dennis Doherty, singer: born Halifax, Nova Scotia 29 November 1940: twice married (one son, two daughters): died Mississauga, Ontario 19 January 2007.

Despite their hippie clothes and Bohemian life style, the Mamas and the Papas were one of the key groups of the mid-1960s, crossing boundaries and genres with their vibrant, full-blooded harmonies. Much of their success can be attributed to Denny Doherty, who sang the lead vocal on their glorious, million-selling single "Monday, Monday".

"The Mamas and the Papas would have been nothing without John Phillips's songs and arrangements," says Pete Frame, who created a Byzantine rock family tree of the group, "but that is not to deny Denny Doherty's remarkable contribution. He helped to create those extraordinary harmonies: he was a fantastic singer and you could tell that he just loved singing."

The good-natured Doherty, who was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1940, played in a local rock'n'roll band, the Hepsters, in his teens. In 1959, he formed a folk group, the Colonials, for appearances in colleges and coffee-houses. With Zal Yanovsky as a guitarist, they became the Halifax Three and secured a recording contract in New York. Their records were unsuccessful and Doherty and Yanovsky became bartenders on the campus of Georgetown University. With a view to infusing folk music with the energy of the Beatles, they formed the Mugwumps with Cass Elliot on vocals.

In December 1964, John Phillips was in a folk group, the Journeymen, with his wife, Michelle Gilliam, and he added Doherty to open some shows for the comedian Bill Cosby. In January, they took a holiday in the Virgin Islands and they developed a new group with a contemporary sound. Their benefactor, Hugh Duffy, was credited in Phillips's self-mocking hit single "Creeque Alley" (1967).

Although Elliot visited them, Phillips did not think her voice possessed enough range for the group. Fortuitously, a lead pipe fell on her head and, after she recovered, her singing voice improved. They called themselves the Mamas and the Papas, after watching a television documentary on Hell's Angels in which their president said, "Some call our girls cheap but we call them Mamas."

The Mamas and the Papas returned to New York and, needing money, Phillips took a job delivering a limousine to Los Angeles. The others climbed in and rehearsed harmonies on the way. Their friend Barry McGuire introduced them to Lou Adler, the owner of his record label, Dunhill, and they were given a contract. John Phillips told me in 1991,

Barry McGuire had a smash with "Eve of Destruction" and he had to make an album. He did songs like "Hang On Sloopy" and Lou Adler wanted him to try "California Dreamin' ". It didn't sound too good but Lou loved the track and the background vocals were great. Lou said, "Suppose we cut it with Denny on lead", and that's what happened. The only thing different is the lead vocal.

"California Dreamin' ", one of several songs about John and Michelle Phillips's relationship, went to No 4 in the United States, although it only made No 23 in Britain. It has subsequently been a UK hit for Jose Feliciano (1968) and River City People (1990) and, in 1997, the Mamas and the Papas' version returned to the charts following a TV commercial.

The Mamas and the Papas topped the American charts with "Monday, Monday", which was backed by Doherty's "Got a Feelin' ", and the single made No 3 in Britain. The group's first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966), which featured the two singles and had a cover picture of them in a bath, was also a million-seller. Their superlative harmonies were supported by the best session musicians in Los Angeles including James Burton, Glen Campbell and Hal Blaine. One song, "Straight Shooter", was a thinly disguised commentary on drug use: "I'm a real straight shooter if you know what I mean."

Elliot longed for a relationship with Doherty, but instead he had an affair with Gilliam. When it was over, Phillips and Doherty poured their feelings about Gilliam into another hit song, "I Saw Her Again". Paul McCartney was intrigued by the way the group came in too early on its final chorus and yet it was left on the record. "That has to be a mistake: nobody's that clever," he told them.

A revival of the Shirelles' "Dedicated to the One I Love" (1967) made No 2 on both sides of the Atlantic. Their take on Vietnam, "Safe in My Garden" (1968), was, according to Phillips, "about doing normal things and not going into foreign countries to kill complete strangers".

The Mamas and the Papas became rich, and Doherty bought a mansion in Laurel Canyon and, in true hippie fashion, allowed any of his friends to stay there. The group was partying so much that they gave less than 50 concerts during their three years together. Phillips, however, organised the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the Mamas and the Papas appeared alongside Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who. His anthem for the festival, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)", was passed to his friend Scott McKenzie. It became a transatlantic No 1 and, more importantly, the hippie anthem. Despite the peace and love vibes of the time, the Mamas and the other Papa were angry that John Phillips had given the song away.

The group released Cass John Michelle Dennie (sic, 1966), The Mamas and the Papas Deliver (1967) and The Papas and the Mamas (1968), which included poignant originals as well as reconstituted favourites such as "Twist and Shout" and "My Girl". A revival of the oldie "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (1968) was released as a solo single under Mama Cass's name. Cass became a solo attraction, making an album and appearing on television in her own right. Although the group returned for an album, People Like Us (1971), the harmonies were weak and Phillips was more interested in his solo career. Elliot died in 1974 and Phillips in 2001.

Doherty made the solo albums Watcha Gonna Do (1971) and Waiting for a Song (1974), but promoting him as "the psychedelic Frank Sinatra" was nonsensical. He appeared in a Broadway play written by Phillips, Man on the Moon (1974), and had several acting roles. He compered TV shows in Canada and he toured with Phillips in a version of the Mamas and the Papas for nostalgia shows.

In 2003, he starred in a show about the Mamas and the Papas, Dream a Little Dream, in Greenwich Village.

Spencer Leigh

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