But no, Mama Cass Elliot's voice did not change because she got conked on the head by a pipe at a construction site on St. Thomas, no matter how many times Papa John Phillips told that story.
"John said this? That she was wandering around in a construction site?" said a laughing Denny Doherty, the fourth member of the legendary rock group, during a radio interview in 2003. "Yeah, well he didn't want her to sing along. John never wanted Cass in the group, just for the image. Michelle looked good, I looked good, he looked good — we looked good. What about this 300-pound woman?"
When Denny died Friday at age 66 in Mississauga, Ontario, he left behind a family, millions of fans who still love his music and a trove of stories about the band's formative period in the Virgin Islands. They hit with "California Dreamin'" less than six months after leaving the territory, and over the next two years had a run of hits alternately ardent and wistful, including "I Saw Her Again Last Night," "Monday, Monday" and a cover of "Dedicated to the One I Love" by a '50s R&B band from North Carolina called the "5" Royales.
Not long after they got off the plane on St. Thomas, Nicky Russell bumped into the future stars and their entourage. Now 57 and better known by his calypso stage name, Mighty Whitey, Russell was 15 at the time.
"I was driving my motorcycle by the airport," he said. "I had a little Suzuki. I saw these guys pushing a motorcycle. They had one running and one they were pushing."
A number of friends accompanied John, Michelle and Denny to St. Thomas. They came loaded with supplies they bought before leaving Manhattan.
"We went over to Third Avenue and bought war-surplus tents and cots and stoves and all kinds of stuff," Denny said in 1998. "There was a national park. We found out there was a national park over on St. John, the next island over from St. Thomas."
Plus a couple of Yamaha 125 motorcycles. "They brought them with 'em on the plane," Russell said. "Denny was talking about that when I saw him in April of 2006. They used to tell people they were fuel injected — they were actually oil injected. They had little two-stroke engines that could mix the oil and gas."
When Russell saw their predicament, he offered to help: "I said, 'I can tow your bike to the bike shop.' I towed it to a nearby Honda shop, with Denny steering. It was near where the Domino gas station is now." It didn't hurt that the musicians had a beautiful young blonde in their midst.
"Michelle was just the most gorgeous girl you've ever seen," Russell said.
In their 1967 hit "Creeque Alley," the Mamas and the Papas misspelled the name of a Charlotte Amalie byway in the process of offering a sanitized, easy-rolling version of their origins:
Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted
And Michie wants to go to the sea
Cass can't make it, she says we'll have to fake it
We knew she'd come eventually
Greasin' on American Express cards
Tent's low rent, but keeping out the heat's hard
Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely
And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality
"Duffy" is Hugh Duffy, then owner of a bar called Duffy's in Creque's Alley. He gave the band its first big break at a time when they were still a folk outfit calling themselves the New Journeymen. But they found it tough to compete during the off season, especially with the act playing in one of Duffy's other bars.
"At the time I had Johnny Cash next door," said Duffy, now 85. "The year before, I had the Barefoot Boys from upstate New York. I went up to New York to get them because I was losing money with the Mamas and the Papas. By the time I got back, they were gone."
They had to leave in a hurry. But that's getting ahead of the story. Duffy has stayed in contact with the members of the band throughout the years, including Denny.
"He was a sweetheart," Duffy said. "I have a lot of stories — maybe not stories I could tell."
Denny played guitar and sang the male lead parts on most of the band's songs. In recent years he wrote and performed a musical called "Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas."
Source reporter Molly Morris missed the band's run at Duffy's in Creque's Alley, moving to St. Thomas in 1967. But she managed to catch Denny and his stage show at the Bleeker Street Theater in the Greenwich Village section of New York City a couple of years ago. The members of the group were part of the folk scene there before coming to St. Thomas.
"It was a wonderful, wonderful show — he sat on the side of the stage and told stories," Morris said. "I was laughing and crying. I loved the Mamas and the Papas — not because of the St. Thomas connection, but just because I liked the music."
The theater was an intimate space, and Morris got lucky with good seats near the stage. After the show, Denny stood on the sidewalk outside the theater. Morris overcame her customary shyness and approached him.
"Usually it takes a lot of nerve for me to do this, but I just had to tell him how great the show was," Morris said. "I thought, 'What the hell.' He just couldn't have been more receptive. When I told him where I was from, he jumped — he was so excited."
Denny asked Morris about his old friend Pat Boatwright, a diver and "a really funny guy" who is also an old friend of Morris's husband. Boatwright now lives on Vieques and struggles with health problems, according to friends. "Pat just thought that was the cat's nuts when I told him about Denny asking about him," she said.
Occasionally Denny sat down in front of a camera or microphone to tell the band's story, warts and all. One such instance came in March 2003, when he stopped by a studio in Merritt Island, Fla., and sat down for two hours with Fred Migliore, host of "FM Odyssey." The resulting interview yielded a wealth of details about the Mamas and the Papas' memorable summer on St. Thomas and St. John 42 years ago.
"We're down on the islands," Denny told Migliore. "Duffy, this poor man who owned a hotel, converts his hotel into a club — a nightclub. Guts the hotel, we put up burlap all over the place, we're gonna open the show. The night we opened up, Cass was waiting on tables. Duffy put her to work waiting tables because she was great with the crowd, and with the customers.
"But she started singing along offstage. Just waiting on tables, she'd sing along with us. It started to sound really good. (Sings.) She'd walk by the bandstand and start singing with us. John's going, 'If only she could sing a little higher. It's her voice — her voice is not right for the group.'"
But Phillips merely used Elliot's voice as an excuse to avoid discussing her appearance, Denny contended. Which led to the invention of the pipe story.
"While Duffy had been destroying his hotel to make a club, they took out the ice machine — the copper coil for the ice machine," Denny said. "(Cass) was coming in Creque Alley to come upstairs at Duffy's, and somebody ripped it out of the ice machine, and threw it over the thing, and it came down and hit her on the head!
And knocked her out cold. In Creque Alley. It caused a minor traffic jam, but I don't think that it raised her voice any at all.
"He just finally heard her sing and he went, 'Can you sing this part?' And she went (belts out an operatic note). And he went, 'Oh Michelle, you sing this, and Den, you come back and double on the octave.' I didn't know what he was talking about. He had four voices to work with instead of three. It sounded great, and he couldn't deny his ears."
Thus ended the New Journeymen.
"John Phillips was a songwriter and a performer since the mid-to-late '50s," Russell said. "I've got a whole book of his stuff with the Jourrneymen. He was quite a big name in the business before he was ever doing rock and roll."
Michie wants to go to the sea
In New York, the New Journeymen came together with Marshall Brickman and John's young wife, Michelle. A Los Angeles native, she got sick of the New York City winters bleeding her and proposed a trip south. She turned 21 shortly before they arrived.
"I wanted a vacation," Michelle said in 1998. "I felt that I needed a vacation. I asked that night — I said, 'Can't we go someplace warm?'"
The quote comes from a 1998 documentary made for BBC Television called "Rock Family Trees: California Dreamin'," which aired in America on The Learning Channel. Michelle and Denny both gave candid, detailed interviews for the program, along with Brickman.
"John took our American Express card," Brickman said. "It said 'The New Journeymen.' For which we were responsible, 'individually and severally' — that's the legal phrase. And he took 20 people down to the Virgin Islands. On the card."
According to Brickman, John didn't just take the card — he used it.
"I would get calls from the Treasury Department," Brickman said. "'Mr. Brickman, we were just wondering if you knew where Mr. Phillips was, because he's run up a bill of $31,000.' Of course I knew where he was, but I just said, 'Gee, I don't know.'"
Despite John's big spending, the crowd lived a fairly low-rent existence in the territory.
"They went to go camping in St. John," Russell said. "They said they were gonna stay all summer. But there are rules at the national park — you can only stay two weeks. It's still like that today. Two weeks later they were back looking for a job."
That's when they presented themselves to Duffy. The number of people in the entourage varies depending on who's telling the story.
"They showed up in St. Thomas — 13 of 'em," Duffy said. "They were getting eaten alive in St. John. They said, 'Can we rent some rooms?' I said, 'Yeah I've got seven or eight rooms, all empty.' Thirteen of 'em showed up with dogs and motorcycles. It was the off season. We became great friends."
The group included John's young daughter from a previous marriage, Mackenzie Phillips, then 5 years old. She later went on to fame in the movie "American Graffiti" and the '70s sitcom "One Day at a Time," and continues to act in television shows like "ER" and "7th Heaven." In the early '80s she joined a short-lived new version of the Mamas and the Papas with her father, Denny and Spanky McFarlane. With Spanky and Our Gang, McFarlane sang such late-'60s favorites as "Like to Get to Know You" and "Sunday Will Never Be the Same."
"They said, 'We're entertainers,'" Duffy said. "Which I knew because all they did was play music."
Russell spent a lot of time with the group after they returned to St. Thomas: "Some lived at Duffy's, some at the bottom of Bunker Hill, renting from the Spenceleys. One of the Spenceley boys told me, 'I used to have a bill where they skipped out on the rent they owed.'"
In later years, Denny and Michelle freely admitted that drugs were a big part of the scene at the time. As Denny put it in the 2003 radio interview, "John was very friendly with the chemist on the corner."
"They were just regular old musicians, crazy long-haired musicians," Russell said. "Nothing surprising — typical band guys."
If the drug use seemed routine to the young people at the time, Duffy felt oppressed by the local response: "People on St. Thomas were not very receptive to them because they were hippies — the St. Thomas people and the government. I was branded the dope king of the West Indies! The cops would break open the cigarette machine looking for marijuana. They were just assholes."
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal, and that was the Mugwumps
In addition to the core members of the band, the entourage included musicians like guitarist Eric Hord and occasional visitors from New York like one of rock's finest songwriters, John Sebastian, and one of its most irrepressible characters, guitarist Zal Yanovsky. They were former bandmates with Denny and Cass in a group called the Mugwumps, and would soon find stardom of their own in the Lovin' Spoonful.
"Nobody knew who they were," Russell said. "They weren't famous yet. They were just some of the guys hanging out."
Despite the lyrics to "Creeque Alley," the appearance of Cass was hardly inevitable. She followed the group to St. Thomas because she had a crush on Denny, sparking the kind of sexual tensions and romantic triangles that wouldn't be seen in a rock band again until Fleetwood Mac 10 years later.
"Denny and I had started this big, big flirtation in the Virgin Islands," Michelle said in 1998. "And Cass was in love with Denny. That was the dynamic there."
For Russell, though, it was just a great time to be young and hang out.
"They were all certainly friendly enough," Russell said. "They had a place on top of Duffy's — a tiny open place. It had a roof on it, but it was open on the sides. They called it the Crow's Nest. They would tell people they had boxing matches up there. They would just make up stuff. Nobody else went there at the time. Later Duffy put a bar up there."
John and Michie were gettin' kinda itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind
The musicians' folkie roots showed when they first started playing for Duffy. They mixed John's original songs with vintage classics.
"I remember one of the songs they used to sing was 'Silver Threads and Golden Needles,'" Russell said. Despite his age, he had no trouble getting in to see them.
"Back then it didn't matter — you could go in any place," he said. "Nobody cared."
In another contradiction to "Creeque Alley," Russell said the move away from folk music came more from Denny than John and Michelle. A year earlier the Mugwumps had anticipated the folk-rock explosion of 1965, when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival and had a hit with "Like a Rolling Stone," paralleled by the Byrds' hit cover of Dylan's "Mister Tambourine Man." But going electric in 1964 had been a little premature, despite the best efforts of Denny, Cass and the Spoonful guys to put it across.
"It was a year before Dylan plugged in," Denny said in 1998. "It was just too soon. People weren't ready for it yet."
But contrary to their public pronouncements, Michelle said, Denny and John were ready for Cass in 1965.
"Denny and John will tell you that Cass really wanted to be in the group," Michelle said in 1998. "But they didn't want her. But that is not true. My recollection is just the opposite. They wanted her in the group, but she was reluctant. Cass had a career of her own."
Duffy paid them "$165 a week plus cheeseburge
rs and drinks," Russell said, but even then they weren't earning their keep.
"I never made any money with them for sure," Duffy said. "Nobody had any money. It was just like a pickup band, really. They didn't appeal to anybody when I had Johnny Cash. They felt badly about it because nobody was coming."
But Duffy didn't really mind: "They were very talented, and very attractive, and we became really good friends."
Denny proposed a change. "Denny said to John, 'We're gonna die down here. They wanna hear some rock and roll,'" Russell said. The change made sense to Duffy: "They said, 'We'll get some costumes together and we'll open,' and I said, 'Great.' They got some Japanese guitars."
In those days, Russell said, the only real music shop on St. Thomas was Bill Lamotta's. There John bought his first electric guitar, a 1962 Fender Musicmaster. Or did he?
"Timmy Duffy said, 'That used to be my guitar!'" Russell said. "'My dad took it from me!'" Russell's brother in law, the late Eric Winter, "finished the guitars so they would look alike."
Despite adding Cass and turning up the volume, however, the band never got a foothold in St. Thomas. Whether it was because of competition from the Man in Black or because the group's sound hadn't quite gelled, they didn't find an audience until they went back to the mainland.
Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely
The end came quickly.
"They had a run-in with the law," Russell said. "They were asked to leave right away."
After a summer of sex, drugs and rock and roll, the band started to feel the kind of heat that Duffy complained about.
"Gov. (Ralph Moses) Paiewonsky told us all to be off the island before sunup. Or sundown, or something," Denny said in 2003. "He said, 'Get off the island.' It seems his nephew got into our medicine bag — some substance or other that was not controlled at all. It sent him off into a fiery tizzy in the middle of his bedroom. (Laughs.) The governor sent the troops down and said, 'You're off the island or in the fort.'
"Cass was the only one who had a two-way ticket. We had one-way tickets — to paradise. So we had to sell everything. We had motorcycles and tenting gear and all our instruments. We sold everything. There were 10 of us, and we got enough money to get everybody to Puerto Rico, to San Juan. But we were off St. Thomas, thank you very much."
Russell bought John's guitar, and still has it to this day. Denny signed a letter for him verifying its authenticity. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland inducted the Mamas and the Papas in 1998, and Russell recently loaned the guitar to go on display for a year.
While selling their equipment got everybody out of Charlotte Amalie, they found themselves with virtually no money in San Juan.
"On Puerto Rico we're broke," Denny said in 2003. "It's time now — 'Hello, Ma? Can you lend me $500? I'm stuck in San Juan. I wanna come home.' That's what was next for everybody. Because John was up at the counter talking with the Pan Am guys going, 'Will you take a personal check for 10 round-trip tickets to New York'? People we're laughing at us, going, 'Get out of here!'"
But John forged ahead.
"So we had $20," Michelle said. "John said, 'Well, there's only one thing we can do — we have to go to the tables.' I said, 'That's the one thing we can do with $20? Gamble it?' He said, 'Well, we can't even eat out on $20. Our last hope is the tables.'"
At least they had proper attire.
"I think we had less than $50 left," Denny said. "We had our Journeymen suits — John and I had our Brooks Brothers suits, and Michelle had a red dress. John said, 'That's it — put on the Journeymen outfits, we're goin' to the casino with the 50 bucks.' I said, 'Sure, let's go.'"
Michelle: "I had never even played craps before."
Denny: "We go off to the Caribe Hilton, down into the casino. John and I walk over to the crap table. I didn't know anything about gambling. John and Michelle go to the head of the crap table. She gets the dice. And I didn't know what was going on."
Michelle: "They give me the dice and I started to roll 'em."
Denny: "I guess in craps if you get the dice two or three times, that's pretty good, and then you gotta pass the dice along. If you get the dice eight or nine times, that's miraculous. Michelle kept the dice for 17 throws. The place was going crazy. Some blond Scandinavian man down at the end won about $50,000 and fell over in a seizure. The rest of the casino was over watching: 'Go, blondie! Throw it again! Yeah!'
"John's throwing dollars here, there and everywhere. She loses the dice. John scoops the money and goes, 'C'mon Den, c'mon, let's go, let's go.' Back to the airport with enough cash in his hand — '10 one-ways, first class, to New York, please, and put the dog in the cabin with us, if you please.'"
Michelle: "We had more than enough money for all of us to fly home first class."
California dreamin' is becomin' a reality
Michelle's miraculous run in the casino saved the band, Denny believed.
"That's how we got off the islands and made it back," he said in 2003. "Otherwise the group wouldn't have happened, I don't think. Everybody would have gone their separate ways. We were stuck. Michie rolled us out of the hole, and to New York.
"By the time we got to New York, Cass is in Los Angeles. 'Where are you going?' 'We're going to L.A.' Michelle was from Los Angeles, she wanted to go home, and there was nothing left for us in New York. So we had a U-Drive (rental car) and headed for the coast."
A whirlwind of activity on the West Coast culminated with the release of "California Dreamin'" as a single in November 1965, becoming a smash hit three months later. Penned by John and Michelle, the song was originally recorded by gruff-voiced Barry McGuire, a folkie turned rocker who had one hit with the protest anthem "Eve of Destruction." Producer Lou Adler quickly scrapped that idea after realizing its potential, reserving the song for the sweet harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas.
After hitting it big, the band didn't forget Duffy.
"Next thing I heard from 'em they had this big hit, 'Monday, Monday,' and 'California Dreamin','" Duffy said. "I had two or three jukeboxes at Duffy's and put 'em on there. We became very close — I saw them at Carnegie Hall. We stayed in touch over the years."
The band had a spectacular run on the charts for the next two years. In June 1967, John organized the historic Monterey Pop Festival, where his unrehearsed group had to close the show after the Who and Jimi Hendrix smashed their instruments and burned a guitar, respectively. John and Lou Adler would later go into film work, producing D. A. Pennebaker's documentary "Monterey Pop" and Robert Altman's "Brewster McCloud," among other movies.
By the time Molly Morris arrived on St. Thomas from San Francisco in the year of "Creeque Alley" and the Summer of Love, the Mamas and the Papas had become international stars. A lot of locals wanted to get on the bandwagon, even though almost none of them caught the band at Duffy's.
"They weren't that famous when they were here," Morris said. "Of course everybody wanted to attach themselves to them."
Their producer's questions about the band's origins inspired the Mamas and the Papas to write "Cr
eeque Alley" and revisit their time in the territory.
"Lou Adler asked, 'Where did you come from?'" Denny said in 2003. "We were in New York, then we went to the islands. 'Well, who put up with you in the islands?' Duffy. He had a little bar in Creque Alley. And John and Michelle — he still didn't quite understand how it all came together, from folk music to the breakup to ending up in L.A.
"So John and Michelle sat down one day and wrote 'Creeque Alley' to try to describe to Lou and to the world where we had come from. And by way of explanation, what the band was all about. Creque Alley was where Duffy's bar was in St. Thomas. It's a family name. It runs from Main Street down to the waterfront. So yeah, 'Creeque Alley' was a song that was supposed to be autobiographical."
Despite the outward appearance of success and the good-natured bounce of "Creeque Alley," internal tensions slowly destroyed the band.
"I had not looked twice at Denny until Cass started going on and on and on," Michelle said in 1998. "Finally, when we got back to Los Angeles, Denny and I started to have an affair. When this came to light, you can imagine that there were a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of — it created practically an unsolvable situation."
Denny in 1998: "For all intents and purposes, it was over before it began. Before we even signed a record deal."
The band fired Michelle in 1966, replacing her briefly with Adler's girlfriend, Jill Gibson. After Michelle returned, they stayed together into 1968 before falling apart for good.
Cass released a string of solo records and made countless television appearances in the late '60s and early '70s before dying of a heart attack at age 32 in the summer of 1974. John and Denny both released solo albums, and John continued to write songs, penning a No. 1 hit for the Beach Boys, "Kokomo," in 1988. He died in 2001. Michelle began acting in 1971 and has worked steadily ever since, appearing in recent years on "7th Heaven" and "Spin City." Before writing his play, Denny provided all the voices for a children's TV show, "Theodore the Tugboat."
Duffy closed Duffy's in 1969 and moved to Vieques, where he runs a restaurant called Chez Shack and just opened a new version of an old favorite called Duffy's Esperanza, run by his youngest son. "I'm 85 years old and I just opened a new restaurant!" he said. Duffy's oldest son, Tim, runs Duffy's Love Shack on St. Thomas.
A few years ago Russell reconnected with Denny, and spent time with him and his family in Cleveland last year when Denny staged "Dream a Little Dream" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Russell was having a birthday party when friends called with word of Denny's death.
"I'm sure his family is devastated," Russell said.
Duffy had hoped to see Denny again.
"About three months ago he kept threatening to come down to see me," Duffy said Sunday evening. "He won't be coming down to see me now. I talked to Michelle today — she was really broken up."
Russell appreciates the time he had getting to know Denny again, and the time he had hanging out with a hip group of musicians 42 years ago.
"They were just a young band that came down here to cool out and relax and try to find a new groove," Russell said. "And they did."
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