For those who love the music of the 1960s, especially the folk-influenced rock that defined the era, the departure of Denny Doherty at 66 is a tough blow. Doherty was a member of the seminal group The Mamas And The Papas, whose brief tenure produced some of the era’s most brilliant music:
Denny Doherty, one-quarter of the 1960s folk-rock group the Mamas and the Papas, known for their soaring harmony on hits like “California Dreamin'” and “Monday, Monday,” died Friday at 66.
His sister Frances Arnold said the singer-songwriter died at his home in Mississauga, a city just west of Toronto, after a short illness. He had suffered kidney problems following surgery last month and had been put on dialysis, Arnold said.
The group burst on the national scene in 1966 with the top 10 smash “California Dreamin’.” The Mamas and the Papas broke new ground by having women and men in one group at a time when most singing groups were unisex. John Phillips, the group’s chief songwriter; his wife, Michelle; and another female vocalist, Cass Elliot, teamed with Doherty.
“Monday, Monday” hit No. 1 on the charts and won the band a Grammy for best contemporary group performance. Among the group’s other songs were “I Saw Her Again Last Night,” “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “Dancing Bear,” and versions of “I Call Your Name” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.”
For those who want to know the group’s pedigree, they sang it to us in “Creeque Alley”. Doherty, Elliot, and Phillips had bounced around the folk-music scene for some time, along with founding members of The Loving Spoonful and The Byrds. Doherty linked up musically with Elliot when she was singing with the Big Three, which consisted of her and two men doing straight folk music. The group had some national attention for a short period, and Doherty brought her to John and Michelle Phillips. After some initial difficulties, the four formed the group and sang together for less than three years.
But what an amazing run they had! The melodies soared in songs like “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming”. They tried older musical forms in such songs as “Words of Love” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”, using the amazing talent of Cass Elliot to its fullest. “I Call Your Name” is one of my favorites. It starts off low and sultry, and it gradually works itself into a showstopper.
Elliot went on to a solo career as a singer, but the rest of the group faded off to some extent. Michelle Phillips has had a good acting career, while John tried to form the group without her and Cass Elliot, using his daughter Mackenzie and Elaine “Spanky” McFarland, who had some hit songs in the 60s with Spanky & Our Gang. It didn’t fly; I attended one of the concerts in Los Angeles’ Greek Theater, and while the music was good, it didn’t have the same magic. Mackenzie, who had just joined the group, couldn’t remember the lyrics to one of her father’s new songs, which was just as well.
Doherty had taken the story of the group to Broadway in recent years. We saw him in a biography of Cass Elliot just a couple of weeks ago, and Doherty was crushingly honest in his assessment of the group and himself. He regretted that he never took up Cass’ offer to marry, saying that as a young man that he was too shallow to see past her weight to all the love she had to offer, tears forming in his eyes. Doherty seemed to be the kind of man that one would be lucky to have as a friend, and certainly a performer we were all lucky to experience — and luckier still that his performances remain with us.
Godspeed, Denny. We know you’ll be arranging more harmonies where you’re at now.