Sunday, October 24, 2021

Denny Doherty: The Canadian who sang about : "California Dreamin'"

Denny Doherty, circa 1967

The burst of energy that was The Mamas & The Papas was like a sun and Denny a planet orbiting it.  By turns he was obsessed with this great adventure and desperate to escape its gravitational pull . . ."

- Paul Ledoux, Halifax-born playwright and director

The Mamas and the Papas was one of the most popular and well known folk rock bands of the 1960s.  They epitomized the laid-back lifestyle of the California hippies of that decade.  The most recognized members of that legendary quartet were Cass Elliot, known as Mama Cass, and John and Michelle Phillips.  The fourth member, Denny Doherty, was not as well known, although he was the group's lead singer, with a voice that has been described as a "mellow tenor."  His former colleague, California-born Michelle Phillips, once likened his vocals to that of a "psychedelic Franck Sinatra."  As for Michelle's own voice, Time magazine called it "the purest soprano in pop music."  

Unlike the other members of the Mamas and the Papas, Denny was not an American.  Dennis Gerrard Stephen "Denny" Doherty was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on November 29, 1940.  He was raised in the city's gritty north end, the youngest of five children, in a devout Catholic home.  His father was a dock worker and his mother was a homemaker. 

Denny Doherty launched his music career at the age of 15 with the Halifax dance band of Peter Power.  In his teenage years, Denny sang with a succession of pop-folk groups, including the Hepsters, the Colonials and the Halifax Three.  Before reaching the age of 16, he put together a quartet called the Hepsters,  For almost two years, the Hepsters played traditional folk standards at busy local clubs.  

In 1960, when Denny was 19 years old, he and his high school friends, guitarists Pat LaCroix and Richard Byrne, formed the Colonials in Montreal.  The Colonials, Denny's first folk trio, hosted a Halifax CBC TV show and performed across Canada.  After signing a contract with Columbia Records in New York, the group changed their name to the Halifax Three.  The Halifax Three scored a minor hit with a song called "The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along With Mitch." 1n 1963, they released their second album. San Francisco Bay Blues, inspired by a visit to California.

The Halifax Three added a fourth member, Toronto guitarist Zal Yanovsky, for a U.S. tour with the Journeymen, a group that featured Denny's future bandmates with the Mamas and Papas, John and Michelle Phillips.  The Halifax Three played Carnegie Hall in New York City and became part of New York's Greenwich Village folk scene,  It was there that Denny met singer Cass Elliot, who moved in those circles..  The two became friends while Cass was performing with a group called the Big Three.  When the Halifax Three split up, Denny joined Cass, Tim Rose and Jim Hendricks as a member of the Big Three. (Cass Elliot wed Hendricks in 1963 but the marriage was annulled in 1968).

The Big Three broke up in 1964.  A new group, the Mugwumps, was formed consisting of  Cass and Hendricks, Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian.  Although regarded as a seminal folk-rock band, the New-York based Mugwumps lasted only eight months and recorded one self-titled album, which was released after the band had dismantled.  John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky went on to form the Lovin' Spoonful.  Meanwhile, Denny teamed up with fellow folk singers John and Michelle Phillips of the Journeymen to become The New Journeymen.  In 1965, the New Journeymen relocated to Los Angeles where they joined up with Cass Elliot to form the Mamas and the Papas.

The Halifax Three

Below is a photo of the Mugwumps: Left to right - Zal Yanovsky, Jim Hendricks, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty.

The Mamas and the Papas burst on the music scene in 1965 with the release of their smash hit "California Dreamin'."  A string of other hit singles followed, including "Monday, Monday," "I Saw Her Again," "Got a Feelin'," "Creeque Alley" and "Dedicated to the One I Love."  The Mamas and the Papas were unique at the time because the group was made up of both men and women in an era when most singing groups were not.  Although they only stayed together for three years, they produced five albums and ten hit singles.   John Phillips was certainly the principal songwriter for the Mamas and the Papas, but Denny Doherty was also a gifted composer.  Denny co-wrote some of the group's hit songs with John, including "I Saw Her Again" and "Got a Feelin'."

Phillips, along with his wife Michelle and Cass Elliot, combined with Denny to create a beautiful, harmonious sound.  However, it was Denny Doherty who provided the main vocals for the group.  According to Larry Leblanc, Canadian editor of Billboard Magazine, "Everybody used to think that John Phillips, who wrote the songs, was also the main voice of the group, but it wasn't - it was the angelic voice of Denny Doherty.  He was overlooked but it was really his voice that carried the group."

Below is a photo of the Mamas and the Papas on The Ed Sullivan Show on June 11, 1967.  From left to right: Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and John Phillips.

In the summer of 1968, the breakup of the Mamas and the Papas became imminent.  The members of the group were moving in different directions.  Cass Elliot wanted to launch a solo career, while Michelle decided to pursue acting.  John and Denny both recorded solo albums.  Furthermore, the group was beset by personal problems, including heavy drug use and a web of romantic entanglements.  In the words of British music historian Barney Hoskyns: "An affair began between Michelle and Denny for whom Cass lusted."  In 1966, due to her relationships with Denny and rival musicians, Michelle was removed from the band.  Her replacement, Jill Gibson, was not well received.  She lasted about two month before Michelle returned.

John and Michelle Phillips divorced in 1969.  Cass Elliot enjoyed a successful solo career until her death in London, England on July 29, 1974.  She was only 32 years old when she died in her sleep at her London flat.  Forensic pathologist, Keith Simpson, who conducted her autopsy, concluded that the singer had died of heart failure.  Cass had a hit with "Dream a Little Dream of Me."  The song was originally on a Mamas and Papas album, but she released it as a single under her own name. 

The Mamas and the Papas reunited briefly in 1971, after which Denny Doherty concentrated on a solo recording career and began to act on stage.   In 1974, after the untimely death of Cass Elliot, Denny returned to New York and appeared on Broadway in Man on the Moon, a musical created by John Phillips and Andy Warhol.  The Man on the Moon closed after only five performances.  Not only that, but Denny discovered that he was flat broke.  However, he did recall that he still owned a house in Nova Scotia.

In 1977, Denny returned to Halifax and performed at the 1977 and 1978 Atlantic Folk Festivals. In the summer of  1978, he hosted The Denny Sho', a CBC TV music/variety show produced in the city. Denny also appeared in dramatic roles at Halifax's Neptune Theatre in plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing and Cabaret.  He collaborated with John Dalton, a former CBC Radio producer, on a Neptune Theatre production of Dream a Little Dream, based on the history of the Mamas and the Papas.  It opened in 1997.

In 2003, Denny produced an off-Broadway production of Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas & the Papas.  It was created largely in response to a John Phillips Broadway musical called Straight Shooter: The True Story of John Phillips and the Mamas and the PapasDream a Little Dream contains the wonderful music of The Mama's and Papas and others of that era.  Its narrative is told from Denny's perspective and it traces the events of the turbulent times between JFK's assassination in 1963 until Cass's death in 1974.

In 1980, Denny Doherty helped to reconfigure the Mamas and the Papas, along with John Phillips, his daughter Mackenzie Phillips (star of the sitcom One Day at a Time), and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane, of the pop band Spanky and Our Gang.  The new version of the Mamas and the Papas toured until 1986, after which Denny returned to Canada, settling in the Toronto area.

In 1998, Denny appeared in the gospel-rock musical Fire, created by Canadians Paul Ledoux and David Young,  In the late 1990s, he also played the role of  the main storyteller in The Needfire, a Celtic musical performed at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. (A personal aside: I attended a performance of The Needfire).

In addition to his musical and theatrical accomplishments, Denny established himself on Canadian TV.  From 1993 to 2001, he played the role of the Harbour Master and voiced all the characters on the CBC's children's television program Theodore Tugboat.  The show was set in a busy harbour, modelled after the one in Halifax.  

Denny as the Harbour Master
In 1999, Denny portrayed Charley McGinnis in 22 episodes of Pit Pony, a CBC TV series. In 2004, Denny performed on a CBC TV special celebrating the 25th anniversary of the career of the children's musical trio, Sharon, Lois and  Bram.  He sang "California Dreamin'" and "Who Put the Bump?" with the trio.

Denny Doherty was the father of three children: A daughter named Jessica Woods from a short-lived first marriage, a daughter, Emberly and son, John, from his 20-year marriage to his second wife,  Jeannette.  Denny meet Jeannette in New York, when she was in the chorus line of Man in the Moon. Before returning to Nova Scotia, Denny and Jeannette lived in an apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen before moving to Halifax in 1977.  Sadly, Jeannette died of ovarian cancer in 1998.

On January 19, 2007, Denny passed away at his Mississauga, Ontario home, just west of Toronto. He was 66 years old and he died of kidney failure, following surgery on an abdominal aneurysm.  He was survived by his children and his four siblings: Frances, Joe, Denise and Joan.


* Denny's last TV appearance was on the season finale episode of the Canadian mocumentary series Trailer Park Boys (Season 7, Episode 10), as FBI Special Agent Ryan Shockneck.  Filming was completed just before his death and the episode aired on June 10, 2007.  It was dedicated to his memory.

* Michelle Phillips is the sole surviving member of the original Mama and the Papas.  Her former husband, John Phillips, died of heart failure on March 18, 2001 in Los Angeles at the age of 65.  After years of drug addiction, John's health declined and he underwent a liver transplant in 1992.

* In 2002, Zal Yanovksy, Denny Doherty's friend and fellow Canadian, died of an apparent heart attack near his home in Kingston, Ontario.  He was 58 years old at the time of his passing.  Zal achieved rock stardom as the lead guitarist for the Lovin' Spoonful, a group that had hits such as "Summer in the City" and "Do You Believe In Magic."  In 1966, Zal was arrested in the United States on a drug charge.  He returned to Canada and continued recording.  After retiring as a musician, Zal became a cook and restaurateur in Kingston.

* In 1996, Denny Doherty was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in Calgary, Alberta.  In 1998, the Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

SOURCES: The Guardian obituary, "Denny Doherty: Lead Singer with the Mama and the Papas", January, 2007; Canadian Encyclopedia; Northern Stars website, Denny Doherty - Biography; CBC News obituary, "Doherty, Canadian Singer in the Mamas and the Papas, dies," January 21, 2007;  All Planet website, Denny Doherty Memorial: "'Papa' Denny Doherty: Here I am Documentary Releases 2021; Entertain this Thought website review, "Dream a Little Dream - The nearly true story of the Mamas and the Papas," March 21, 2015; Maclean's magazine; "Papa Denny and his rock 'n' roll adventure," by Brian Bergman, November 17, 1997; Wikipedia; IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base)

- Joanne

No comments:

Post a Comment