Denny Doherty (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 17, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

The year is 1966. A 26-year-old Denny Doherty, riding a wave of fame as part of the California foursome The Mamas & the Papas, is enjoying a quiet drink at an exclusive club in the heart of swinging London. Suddenly a member of that other fab four sits down beside him. "Aren't you . . .

Doherty, Denny (Profile) (Nov97 Updates)

The year is 1966. A 26-year-old Denny Doherty, riding a wave of fame as part of the California foursome The Mamas & the Papas, is enjoying a quiet drink at an exclusive club in the heart of swinging London. Suddenly a member of that other fab four sits down beside him. "Aren't you . . ." says the man with the unmistakable Liverpudlian accent. "Aren't you . . ." replies the Halifax-born Doherty, dumbstruck at meeting one of his musical idols. John Lennon then scans the room and quips, "We are, aren't we." Soon the pair is joined by Paul McCartney, bearing a bag of marijuana, and together they repair to Doherty's digs where he wakes up his band-mate "Mama" Cass Elliott for a personal version of Meet The Beatles. The new friends spend the rest of the night talking and singing by the fire as McCartney plunks the keys of an out-of-tune piano. At sunrise, Lennon and McCartney head off to Abbey Road studios to continue recording a little something called Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That is just one of dozens of wryly delivered postcards from the far-out edges of the 1960s that form the nucleus of Dream A Little Dream, which opened last week at Halifax's Neptune Theatre. The play, co-written (with Nova Scotia playwright Paul Ledoux) and performed by Doherty, recounts his dizzying climb from the working-class streets of Halifax's north end to the heady, hedonistic years he spent as a member of the band that gave the world such classic pop songs as California Dreamin', Monday, Monday and Dedicated to the One I Love. The production also offers a candid portrayal of the sexual intrigues and petty jealousies that led to the breakup of the group in 1969 - and hints at the even tougher times that lay ahead for some band members when the dreamin' turned into a much darker post-Sixties reality of drug addiction, criminal convictions and financial insolvency.

For most of the two-hour play, Doherty is the sole presence on stage, sitting on a stool, strumming his guitar and conjuring verbal images of an era forever framed by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. At various musical interludes, he is joined by a band of mostly Nova Scotia musicians, including vocalist Doris Mason, who makes brief, but striking, appearances as Mama Cass.

Doherty's tale pauses briefly over the details of his childhood in the gritty Halifax neighborhood also occupied by a prison, a slaughterhouse and the city dump. At age 20, the dockyard worker's son was rebuffing his father's offer to become a machinist's apprentice in favor of fleeing town with two other aspiring musicians to form a folk trio that became known as "The Halifax Three." The group eventually landed in New York City, where they performed on the street and lived in what Doherty describes as a "roach palace" of a hotel in Greenwich Village.

The Village was then the epicentre of a folk-music scene that featured established acts like Peter, Paul & Mary and Odetta, as well as a scrawny Minnesota-born newcomer named Bob Dylan. It was in Manhattan that Doherty met up with Cass Elliott, a hefty, hard-drinking woman with a powerful voice who fronted a blues group, The Big Three, and John Phillips, a gangly six-foot, five-inch songwriter who had already made a minor splash with the folk trio the Journeymen. Together with Phillips's gorgeous young California-born bride, Michelle, they would soon become The Mamas & the Papas.

But not, as Doherty documents, without first enduring a few birthing pains. It was by then 1964, and The Beatles had invaded America. Doherty and Elliott adored the new British beat, but "Papa" John Phillips, a folk-music purist, took more persuading. In one of the play's more raucous scenes, Doherty recounts how Mama Cass turned on the foursome to LSD, and how he seized the moment to force John Phillips to listen to Beatles' music. As the house band launches into an infectious version of Twist and Shout, Doherty recalls that Phillips's initial reaction was a disdainful: "It's too simple. It's three chords, Dennis!" But as the LSD kicked in - signified by a shimmering light show on stage - Phillips began to relent.

The quartet headed next to California, where they quickly landed a recording contract on the strength of their fresh folk-rock sound and the backlog of songs Phillips had been penning. They lived the grand life, but there was a serpent in the garden. A long-standing flirtation between Doherty and Michelle Phillips had blossomed into a full-fledged affair. In the spirit of the times, the participants in the love triangle came up with an unconventional solution. Papa John and Doherty moved into a house together in the Hollywood Hills, vowing that neither one would see Michelle. Of course, both of them did so on the sly, and then ended up co-writing one of the band's most popular songs, I Saw Her Again, which includes the lyric: "Every time I see that girl/You know I want to lay down and die/But I really need that girl/Oh, I'm living a lie."

In Doherty's telling, the band imploded just as the music exploded. Even as their songs were topping the charts, Michelle was temporarily kicked out of the group after engaging in increasingly brazen romances with rival musicians. The always tense relationship between Papa John and Mama Cass continued to deteriorate, largely due to Phillips's refusal to recognize Elliott's crucial musical contribution to the group. As for Doherty, he slipped ever further under the influence of his drug of choice - rye whisky - and his California mansion turned into a refuge for doped-up hippies and groupies. It got to the point where he was buying the hangers-on one-way tickets to Paris just to get them out of the house.

By the end of the 1960s, the band was washed up. But for Doherty, the final blow came on July 29, 1974, when he received a call informing him that Mama Cass had just died of a massive heart attack. Which is how he closes the play. But it is far from the end of the story.

Sitting in his dressing room at the Neptune Theatre one evening last week, the fast-talking, affable Doherty completed the narrative. He has weathered a few storms since the breakup of the band, and it shows: balding, craggy-faced and slightly paunchy, he is a far cry from his days as a dreamboat poster boy of the 1960s. But his eyes still sparkle with mirth and a sense of mischief.

Following Elliott's death, Doherty returned to New York for a disastrous theatrical debut in a Broadway musical written by John Phillips. It closed after five performances. He also discovered he was broke. To this day, he says, he has never been given a proper accounting of the number of records the group sold or the amount of money they should have rightfully earned. "I don't care anymore," he says with a wave of his hand. "It's been so long. Even if I was ripped off for $10 million, it's gone. That was just the craziest time in the world. Everybody got ripped off."

Some good came of his brief turn on Broadway: he met his wife, Jeanette, who was in the play's chorus line. The two were living in a crummy apartment in Hell's Kitchen, he says, when he suddenly remembered that he still owned a house in Nova Scotia. He returned to Halifax with Jeanette in 1977, and over the next few years acted in several plays at the Neptune directed by John Neville.

In 1980, Doherty received a call from John Phillips, who wanted to reunite the band. Later that same week, Phillips, who by that point had a serious heroin habit, was arrested on drug distribution charges. "He was supposed to do 15 years in jail, but instead served 28 days in minimum security," says Doherty. "I think it's called turning state's evidence."

For the past 17 years, Doherty has done lengthy stints on the road as part of a patchwork Mamas & Papas, sometimes joined by John Phillips and featuring various female stand-in singers (Michelle Phillips opted for an acting career, winding up with a long-running role as a middle-aged vixen in the prime-time soap Knots Landing). Along with other 1960s nostalgia acts like Herman's Hermits and Donovan, Doherty has performed all over the world for audiences who, as he jokingly puts it, "are there to remember where they were when they first heard the music - if they can remember anything at all."

Since 1987, Doherty, his wife and their two children, Emberly, 16, and John, 15, have lived in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. From that base, he has also pursued acting jobs, landing his biggest part in 1993 as the genial harbormaster in the hit children's show Theodore Tugboat, which is partly shot in Doherty's old elementary school in Halifax. In the show, which now airs in more than 70 countries, the former bad boy is the epitome of paternal wisdom and reliability. So what does Doherty, who finally swore off booze in 1980, tell his own children about his youthful excesses? "I don't tell my kids to do this or not to do that," he says, "other than to say, 'Be aware of what's out there and what a quagmire it can turn into.' " Listen to Papa Denny, kids. He knows whereof he speaks.

Maclean's November 17, 1997