Saturday, January 20, 2007

Folkobit: Denny Doherty

The death has been announced of Denny Doherty, Mamas and the Papas songwriter. He was 66.

Doherty was born in Nova Scotia in 1940, and started singing on the Canadian folk scene in his teens. His first serious band, The Halifax Three, managed a deal with Colombia and a minor hit The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along With Mitch before falling apart. The band's demise left Doherty and Zal Yanovsky broke in New York, from which they were rescued by "Mama" Cass Elliot. Hearing of their plight, she persuaded her management to augment her band, The Big Three by taking on the pair. Further band augmentation led to a name change to Mugwumps, and an untenable financial position. The band fell apart, and Doherty was once more without a visible means of support.

Doherty was thus luckily able to take advantage of the departure of Marhsall Brickman from The New Journeyman, filling the man's shoes for a set of prebooked tour dates. The Journey ended in 1965, but the band reformulated - with Cass Elliot on board - as The Magic Circle. Shortly after signing their first deal, a run of bands with terrible names was topped when they elected to change their name to The Mamas and The Papas, a title so terrible it's still being used for a pram and nappy shop today.

Their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was something of a triumph, although not uncontroversial - complaints about the sleeve weren't focused on the band, sharing a bath (fully clothed). No, it was the presence of a toilet in the picture that led to charges of indecency. Later versions would cover or crop the offending John.

Behind the can was, in effect, everything the band is known for - vocal harmonies, California Dreamin, The In Crowd, Monday, Monday. If it had the sound of someone choking on a ham sandwich, it would have the lot. Rolling Stone still reckons it to be the 127th best album ever made - doesn't sound much, but there's been a lot of albums released over the years - and its modest sales of half a million disguises quite how central to pop culture the record would become. BBC Four, for example, is calling its season on California the California Dreaming season - it's quite an accolade for your creation to become something of a dead cliche that people can't quite shake off.

Doherty wrecked the band by that old stand-by, having an intra-band affair. His was with Michelle Phillips, with the added complication that her husband, John, was also a Mama and Papa; she ended up kicked out the band and Doherty on the juice. The atmosphere wasn't exactly perfect for making blissed out tunes, and the decision to draft in Jill Gibson (the producer's girlfriend) didn't exactly work out, either. The substitute was paid off, Michelle was brought back, and things got even harder for Doherty to cope with.

A lacklustre performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival and an incident where John slagged Cass off in front of Mick Jagger added to a terrible working relationship; Cass stayed for just as long as the contract forced her to. July 1968, as it turned out.

Elliot and Doherty remained friends, as she enjoyed some solo success and he continued to drink; an offer of marriage from her was turned down. In 1974, Cass died. Her funeral was the first time the band were in the same place without bickering for years.

Doherty had a solo career which was well-reviewed if not especially lucrative. He took the lead in a 1975 Warhol Broadway play, Man On The Moon, and a return to Canada in 1978 saw him presenting Denny's Sho, thirteen half hours of "musical entertainment."

There was a sort-of revival of the band - John Phillips firmly in charge - which featured Doherty in the 80s, although it was more the Daughters and the Papas, featuring Mackenzie, John's offspring. Doherty also produced Dream a Little Dream, a stage show telling the Mamas and Papas story from his perspective.

More recently, he provided the voices for Thomas The Tank Engine wannabe Theodore Tugboat.

Doherty died on January 19th at his home in Ontario. Cause of death was an abdominal aneurysm.


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