The Doors rocketed to stardom in the mid 60’s, a time in America when, as keyboardist Ray Manzarek put it, “the battle was between the hip and the non- hip, the heads and the straights, the psychedelics and the squares — and that was basically the battle — the establishment against the hippies.”
One of the most famous chapters in this battle was waged on national television in front of millions of Americans. The night was September 17, 1967 when The Doors appeared live on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The story began with the group forming in Venice Beach, California where two UCLA film school students, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, met in 1965. They began playing music together and soon recruited drummer, John Densmore and guitarist, Robby Krieger. Inspired by a line from William Blake’s poem,The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,” the band found their name. At first they called themselves The Doors of Perception, but soon shortened their name to simple, “The Doors”.
They began playing clubs on the Sunset Strip in 1966 while working on songs for their debut album for Elektra Records. Their self-titled LP, The Doors, was released in January, 1967. The album sold well with “Light My Fire” quickly reaching number one on the Billboard singles chart. To promote the group, The Doors’ manager booked the band to appear that fall on The Ed Sullivan Show. As important as this booking was, for some reason, he failed to tell the band about it.
Ray Manzarek recalls how he found out The Doors were going to appear on the popular variety show. “My wife and I were watching at home…Ed, at the end of the show came on and said, ‘Next week we’re going to have…a rock group from California, The Doors doing their number one hit ‘Light My Fire.’ We looked at each other, saying ‘Oh I guess we’re on The Ed Sullivan Show next week.'” The next morning the band’s manager, Bill Siddons, confirmed the news and booked the group for their flight to New York.
On the afternoon of September 17th 1967, The Doors were in CBS’s Studio 50 rehearsing for that night’s live performance. Shortly after they finished, and with only about 15 minutes before air, Ed Sullivan came back to The Doors’ dressing room and said, “You boys look great, [but] you ought to smile a little more.” The comment was a little odd coming from Ed who, of course, was sometimes known as “the great stoneface”.
After Ed stopped by, a producer from the show came into The Doors’ dressing room. He told the group they needed to change a line in the song, “Light My Fire,” specifically the lyric, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.” He explained the word “higher” was inappropriate for a family show on national television because of its association with illegal drug use. Though Jim Morrison was furious and adamant about not changing the song, the group relented and told the executive they would alter the lyrics as requested. However, as soon as the producer left the room, Morrison declared, “We’re not changing a word.”
The band, being the last act of the evening, had to wait for about an hour before going on. During that time, Manzarek remembers a nervous comedian sweating and pacing backstage as he prepared to perform his routine before the live national audience. That man, Manzarek later found out, was none other than Rodney Dangerfield on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Following Dangerfield’s act, The Doors took the stage to perform two of their biggest hits. Ed’s introduction was short and simple, “Now, The Doors…here they are with their newest hit record, “People are Strange.” Against a hanging backdrop composed of an assortment of actual doors, the band opened to the screams of adoring fans. Morrison sang the haunting number with a vacant look in his eyes. Immediately following that song the band segued into their number one hit, “Light My Fire.”
When it came time for the line, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” Morrison, the unyielding poet and uncompromising artist, sang it just as it had been written. As he finished the now infamous lyric, the camera caught guitarist Robby Krieger with a quick but telling smirk. But Sullivan’s producer and CBS executives were not smiling.
Following The Doors’ performance the ever gracious yet stoic Sullivan can be seen clapping his hands and mouthing the words, “That was wonderful. Just great!” to the band. But instead of shaking hands with the group, he went straight to a commercial for Purina Dog Chow.
Backstage, the show’s producer was furious and told the band “Mr. Sullivan wanted you for six more shows, but you’ll never work The Ed Sullivan Show again.” To which Morrison purportedly replied, “Hey, man. We just did the Sullivan show.”
This recording of The Ed Sullivan Show is itself rare for having captured a live performance of two of The Doors’ most famous songs, delivered at their peak. Manzarek’s dexterity on keyboard is wonderfully showcased during his organ solo. That night audiences watched the charismatic Jim Morrison, with his long curls, tight leather attire and his pure rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
The Doors may have appeared only once, but they changed the The Ed Sullivan Show forever. Their influence spawned a shift in the type of music that was booked on the show, and more gritty rock acts would be soon be showcased to cater to the increasingly influential teen audience.
Contrary to the original narrative, it’s recently come to light that Robby Krieger of The Doors had a different perspective. In his newly published tell-all book, Set The Night on Fire, Krieger claims the band thought Ed Sullivan was joking when asked to change the lyric. The guitarist claims there was no conspiracy to not change the lyric, and that Jim just sang it nervously like he always had. Whether Jim accidentally sang the lyric or decided to express himself authentically without censorship is left for the world to speculate. Ultimately, this cost the Doors to be banned from The Ed Sullivan Show indefinitely.
Following their controversial appearance on Sullivan, The Doors continued to tour and create music, but it would not be for long. Morrison’s unpredictability due to drug and alcohol abuse and the legal troubles that followed took a toll on the band. After Morrison’s breakdown on stage during a performance in New Orleans on December 12th, 1970, the band decided that would be their final performance. Morrison moved to Paris to focus on his writing, but on July 3, 1971 was found dead in his bathtub at the age of 27.
Although The Doors’ active career ended in the early 1970’s, their music, popularity and legend persist to this day. To date, the band has sold more than 74 million albums worldwide. Their distinctive style, poetic lyrics and uncompromising approach to music personify the undying spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps the William Blake poem proved to be prophetic. The influence of The Doors “…appears to man as it is, infinite.”