He was genius-level brilliant, as handsome as a Greek god, and his rich baritone voice defined late 1960s rock. But to everyone who knew James Douglas Morrison, the Doors’ lead singer, he was also a frustrating study in rebellion and excess and, ultimately, self-destruction.
The son of a Navy admiral and his wife, Jim was born in 1943 in Melbourne, Florida. He graduated from high school in Virginia in 1961, then moved to Los Angeles to earn a B. A. in film studies at UCLA four years later. After graduation, he devoured philosophy books and wrote dark, abstract poetry and offbeat song lyrics.
At a Santa Monica dive called the Turkey Joint West, former fellow UCLA film school grad Ray Manzarek led and played organ in a blues band called Rick and the Ravens. (Rick was Ray’s guitarist brother.) One night Manzarek invited former UCLA classmate Morrison onstage to sing. Jim, unprepared for his stage debut, belted out “Louie Louie” until his voice went hoarse.
Manzarek eventually broke up his band and reformed it as the Doors, with himself as keyboardist, Jim as lead singer, and friends Robbie Krieger on guitar and John Densmore on drums. They chose their new name from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a book that advocated the use of psychedelic drugs.
The quartet became a fixture at hip Sunset Boulevard clubs before signing with Elektra Records late in 1966. The Doors, the first of their ten platinum-selling albums, featured “Light My Fire.” The ultimate 1960s erotic rock anthem was created mainly by guitarist Krieger as a slow blues tune, much like Jose’ Feliciano’s laid-back 1968 cover version. The original, more upbeat Doors track ran over seven minutes in length—much too long for radio airplay. Trimmed to under three minutes (Manzarek’s powerful extended organ solo was cut dramatically), “Light My Fire” rocketed to Number One on the 1967 Billboard charts.
When the Doors performed “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show, Morrison had promised to sing “Girl, we couldn’t get much better,” substituting “better” for “higher,” which Sullivan incorrectly feared was a drug reference. Jim had reluctantly agreed to the change but defiantly sang the original lyrics when the show was aired live. The band was never invited back.
On the tour road, the Doors members frequently had to contend with their star’s rampant alcoholism. In Off the Record, Robbie Krieger admitted, “When we played live, it was usually baby-sitting time with him…I loved the guy when he was straight. I disliked him immensely when he was drunk.”
Former Doors manager Bill Siddons once said, “He told those around him, those who loved him and cared about him and tried to get him to stop drinking, that he wanted to die before he was thirty.”
On July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison was found dead of a heart attack in the bathtub at his Paris apartment. He was 27 years old.
It was reported that he had the slightest of smiles on his face.