Jan 19, 2007: The Mamas & Papas’ Denny Doherty Dies

Share This:

The Mamas and the Papas (clockwise from top left): Denny Doherty, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot

Just over 50 years ago, The Mamas and the Papas were on top of the world. In just one year, beginning in early 1966, they’d helped to create the folk-rock genre with such well-crafted hits as “California Dreamin’,” the #1 “Monday, Monday” and two further top 10 entries: “I Saw Her Again” and “Words of Love.” That streak continued right into 1967 with their cover of the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” and the autobiographical “Creeque Alley.”

That last tune, co-written by the group’s John and Michelle Phillips, told the story of the formation and early days of the quartet in 1965. It began, “John and Michy were getting’ kind of itchy just to leave the folk music behind/Zal and Denny workin’ for a penny, tryin’ to get a fish on the line.”

It helped to know a little bit about them already to decode the tale. John and “Michy” were the Phillipses, married on Dec. 31, 1962, when she was only 18 years old. They’d made some headway within the booming folk music scene as members of the New Journeymen while, simultaneously, Denny Doherty and fellow Canadian Zal Yanovsky were doing the same with a group called the Halifax Three. Stranded in Los Angeles when their group broke up, Doherty and Yanovsky joined up with another folk group, the Big 3, which featured the singer Cass Elliot.

Long story short, the Mugwumps dissolved and Yanovsky, along with group member John Sebastian, formed the Lovin’ Spoonful, who would quickly become one of the biggest bands in America with hits such as “Do You Believe in Magic?” and “Daydream.” Doherty found work with the Phillips couple in their group and when the New Journeymen broke up in 1965, the three singers invited Elliot to form a new group they were putting together. The Mamas and the Papas were born.

Their success came quickly. In addition to the hit singles, their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, went to #1, and the next two, the self-titled The Mamas & the Papas and The Mamas & the Papas Deliver, vaulted to #4 and $2, respectively. They closed the fabled Monterey Pop Festival (which John Phillips helped to organize), appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and seemed to be unstoppable.

Related: Our story on the group’s great “Creeque Alley”

But they were. By 1968, drugs, sexual dalliances and squabbling had put an end to the Mamas and the Papas. There was another album, The Papas & the Mamas, in 1968, which went to #15, but that was it for that. An album titled People Like Us was put together in 1971 from vocal parts and backing tracks largely recorded without the band members being in the same room at the same time and it stalled out at #84.

Mama Cass, as Elliot called herself professionally, was certainly not missing the chaos. As the group’s lawyers sorted things out in the wake of the split, she launched a solo career that took her into nightclubs and onto television programs and the charts. She was still quite popular when she died of heart failure in London on July 29, 1974. (Long-held rumors that she choked on a sandwich were unfounded.) She is the subject of a 2024 memoir from her daughter, My Mama, Cass.

Related: Our story on Cass’ solo hit, “Make Your Own Kind of Music”

John Phillips, too, launched a solo career, but only made it up to #181 with his quirky 1970 album John Phillips (John the Wolfking of L.A.). Addicted to heroin, he spent time in jail in the early ’80s for selling narcotics. Michelle Phillips, long since divorced from John, made little impact as a solo performer and neither did Doherty.

In 1981, John Phillips and Denny Doherty attempted to revive the fortunes of the original group by forming The New Mamas and the Papas, with John’s daughter, actress Mackenzie Phillips, replacing the uninterested Michelle, while Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane of the ’60s singing group Spanky and Our Gang took the part of Elliot. At first, they drew enthusiastic audiences but with both John and Mackenzie involved with substance abuse, the revival was always on shaky ground. Doherty quit in 1987, replaced by Scott McKenzie, a friend of the Mamas and the Papas who’d scored his own #4 single at the dawn of 1967’s Summer of Love with the John Phillips-penned “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”

Things only got worse. In 1992, John Phillips underwent a liver transplant and, although the group continued with various members coming and going into the late ’90s, it was never able to fully recapture the original M&Ps’ glory. On March 18, 2001, at age 65, after finishing up a new solo album, John Phillips died of heart failure. Then, on Jan. 19, 2007, at his home in Ontario, Doherty passed away from kidney failure following surgery for a stomach aneurysm.

The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 12, 1998. Michelle Phillips, who became a successful actress beginning in the early ’70s, turned 79 on June 4, 2023.

Watch The Mamas and the Papas sing “California Dreamin’” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967

Best Classic Bands Staff

2 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. JM1745
    #1 JM1745 20 January, 2017, 13:19

    Mamas and Papas :drugs helped to create and launch our favourites rock and roll groups.
    But drugs ‘helped” to destroy them.
    Is that life or is that justice ?

    Reply this comment
  2. mick62
    #2 mick62 20 January, 2021, 05:37

    The quartet that all vocal groups are judged by. Beautiful songs, beautifully sung.
    A fab foursome indeed.

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.