They were the first pop group, after The Beatles and the so-called British invasion, to include women (and a Canadian) as equal partners and to showcase tuneful and harmoniously sophisticated songs. As a group, they produced five albums and sold an estimated 20 million records. Behind the scenes, though, the group was wasting its talent and its energy because they were all — especially Mr. Doherty — in thrall to sex, drugs and alcohol.
One of five children of a hard-drinking Halifax pipe fitter, Mr. Doherty began his singing career there with a local rock band, The Hepsters, while working in a pawn shop. He had started singing in public at age 15, on a dare, performing Love Letters In The Sand in a skating rink-turned-dance-hall with Peter Power’s dance band. In 1959, he formed his first folk trio, The Colonials, and, after changing its name to The Halifax Three, signed a recording contract with Columbia Records in New York.
They had a minor hit, The Man Who Wouldn’t Sing Along With Mitch, released an album, San Francisco Bay Blues, in 1963 on the Epic label, and performed in eastern Canada and in the United States. While on tour with The Halifax Three, Mr. Doherty met musician John Phillips and his wife, a model named Michelle Gilliam.
Separately, he also became friends with Cass Elliot, a singer with a band called The Big Three that also featured Tim Rose. A few months later, Mr. Doherty’s band broke up, ironically in a hotel called The Colonial, also the name of one of his own ill-fated groups. He and his accompanist, fellow Canadian Zal Yanovsky (who would later become the lead guitarist with The Lovin’ Spoonful) were destitute in New York City.
After hearing about their troubles, Cass Elliot convinced her manager to hire them. So Mr. Doherty and Mr. Yanovsky joined her group and enjoyed some success in Greenwich Village. More players were added and the group changed its name to The Mugwumps. They also broke up, as so many groups did in these fluid times, and for the usual reason: insolvency.
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About this time, John Phillips’s band, The New Journeymen, needed a replacement for tenor Marshall Brickman, who had left to pursue a career as a writer for television. Mr. Doherty, needing a job, filled the opening. After the New Journeymen called it quits as a band in early 1965, Mr. Denny’s stalwart friend Cass Elliot was invited into the formation of a new band that became The Magic Circle. And so it was that Mr. Doherty brought all the members of the group together.
Six months later, in September of 1965, the group signed a recording contract with ABC/Dunhill Records. Changing their name to The Mamas and the Papas, the band soon began to record their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. In those drug-soaked, sexually liberated and naive post-Pill, pre-Aids times, Mr. Doherty and Ms. Phillips began a love affair. They tried to keep it secret, especially from Mr. Phillips, which was difficult considering all three lived in the same house.
After Mr. Phillips discovered he was being cuckolded by his bandmate (“He came downstairs and caught us . . . flagrante delecto,” according to Mr. Doherty in Go Where You Wanna Go: the Oral History of The Mamas & the Papas by Matthew Greewald) he and his straying wife moved into a place of their own, while the band kept on playing. The following year, in June of 1966, the band signed a statement, with the backing of the label, kicking Michelle, the most beautiful but least talented member, out of the group.
She was quickly replaced by Jill Gibson, girlfriend of the band’s producer Lou Adler. Her tenure as a “Mama” lasted 10 weeks, a period during which Mr. Doherty drank heavily to console himself about the loss of the beautiful Ms. Phillips. In an effort to put things back together, Ms. Phillips was allowed to rejoin the Mamas and the Papas, but things were no longer copacetic.
“The first thing I did in the morning, and the last thing I did at night, was have a blast of rum,” Mr. Doherty, by then a recovering alcoholic, told a reporter for The New York Times in January of 2000. The band seemed to have lost its focus. In the middle of making another album, Ms. Elliot left to go out on her own. With the loss of her outsize presence and distinctive singing voice, the group fell apart in the summer of 1968.
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