Born Dennis Gerrard Stephen Doherty, November 29, 1940, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada; died of kidney failure, January 19, 2007, in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Singer and songwriter. Denny Doherty was a member of the immensely successful 1960s rock group the Mamas and the Papas, who issued a string of Top Ten hits in the late 1960s that helped define the era musically. Among their best-known songs is the memorable “California Dreamin’,” a 1966 hit that came to embody the spirit of the hippie era. “Alongside the work of the Beach Boys and the Byrds,” the songs crafted by Doherty and his bandmates, noted the Times of London, “helped to create the myth of America’s West Coast as an endless playground of sun, eternal youth, and untroubled hedonism.”
A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Doherty moved in his late teens to the bigger city of Montreal. There, in 1959, he founded a folk act called the Colonials, which eventually became the Halifax Three and cut a record that failed to achieve much chart success. Doherty and a friend then headed south to New York City, where they began playing the Greenwich Village folk circuit, and there he met Cass Elliot, a young woman with a rich voice also working the folk scene. Together they formed a group called the Mugwumps, then teamed with a young married couple, singer-songwriter John Phillips and his wife, Michelle Gilliam Phillips. After several name changes, the quartet finally settled on the Mamas and the Papas after watching a television documentary film about a notorious U.S. motorcycle gang whose girlfriends were called “mamas.”
Doherty and the other three eventually made their way to California, where Dunhill Records chief Lou Adler signed them. They originally sang backup for “California Dreamin’,” written by Phillips, when the known star Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”) recorded it, but that failed to chart. Even their version, with the soaring harmonies that became their trademark sound, failed to catch on immediately, but began to surge on the charts in February of 1966—especially in parts of the United States still suffering under winter weather. It reached No. 4 and made the Mamas and the Papas instant stars. The group was rather unusual for the time, as a rock act with performers of both genders, and they gave off an air of attractive bohemian camaraderie.
Doherty and his bandmates were later quite candid about the drama and substance abuse behind their free-spirited image and astonishing vocal harmonies. Elliott was in love with Doherty, but he spurned her attentions and instead harbored a crush on Michelle Phillips, which eventually turned into an affair. “I Saw Her Again” was one of the band’s hits, which Doherty and John Phillips had written together about Michelle. A period of immense wealth and typical rock ’n’ roll excesses of the era ensued as the band racked up hit after hit over the next year; they also organized the famed Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, the first of the era’s major rock festivals. Doherty owned a Laurel Canyon mansion once belonging to silent film star Mary Astor. The divorce of John and Michelle Phillips spelled the end for the band in 1968, though they returned to record one more album for their label as a contractual obligation in 1971.
Doherty, John Phillips, and Elliot each had solo careers, but Elliot’s was the only one to attain a modicum of success. This was cut short by her sudden death in 1974; John Phillips died, somewhat not unexpectedly, in 2001 after having received a liver transplant some years earlier as a result of his long-time substance abuse. In the 1980s, however, he and his daughter, television actor Mackenzie Phillips, had regrouped with Doherty as a reunited Mamas and the Papas, with a replacement for Elliott, and toured for several years but never recorded. Returning to Canada, Doherty became known to a generation of Canadian children as the host of a long-running series Theodore Tugboat that aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
In the late 1990s, Doherty wrote and produced a stage work, Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas Musical, in which he also appeared when it was staged at an off-Broadway venue in 2003. In early 2007 he suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm in his stomach and underwent surgery for it, but his kidneys failed afterward. He died in Mississauga, Ontario, on January 19, 2007, at the age of 66, survived by only one group member, Michelle Phillips. He was widowed twice and is survived by his son, John, and daughters, Emberly and Jessica.
The hits Doherty recorded with the Mamas and the Papas remain evocative sonic postcards from the long-gone era. The singular blend of their four voices is best exemplified on songs such as their Shirelles cover, “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “California Dreamin’”—a song that seemed to speak to an entire generation of young baby boomers and their desire to break free of convention by heading out West to places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the counterculture was in full swing at the time. In a 2005 Kansas City Star newspaper interview quoted by Joal Ryan for E! Online, Doherty is said to have recounted that fans often came up to him and explained the impact of “California Dreamin’” on their lives, saying, “They [would] go ‘I was living in my father’s Oldsmobile in Minnesota, and I heard that song and I just went to California.’” Sources: Chicago Tribune, January 20, 2007, sec. 3, p. 7; Entertainment Weekly, February 2, 2007, p. 16; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/news/article/index.jsp?uuid=10d45de8fe6a-4b83-8bf1-3637a9332ae4 (January 22, 2007); New York Times, January 20, 2007, p. A11; Times (London), January 23, 2007, p. 54; Washington Post, January 20, 2007, p. B6.