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How 'Light My Fire' Got The Doors Banned From Ed Sullivan

Icons | June 26, 2019

Left: Jim Morrison in an undated photo. Right: Morrison on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sources: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Vimeo.com

The Doors were one of the brainier, moodier rock groups of the late '60s, thanks to tortured-poet frontman Jim Morrison -- listen to "Light My Fire," though, and their pop song chops are clear. With Jim Morrison’s baritone swaying over one of the catchiest electric piano lines you've ever heard, the music gallops along with jazzy flair that showed off the band’s players. While "Riders On The Storm," "Road House Blues," and "The End" might be more representative of what The Doors were about, the (almost) danceable "Light My Fire" is a testament to their range.

And although it was a #1 hit on the Billboard chart, it wasn't pablum. In fact, it was considered controversial by some squares, and it ended up getting The Doors dis-invited from planned Ed Sullivan Show appearances.

The song begs the object of the narrator’s desire to take their relationship to the next level, but rather than be a simple track about a boy and a girl the track takes some twists and turns. The story behind the song, and where it took the band is a must read for any fan of The Doors.

The song started as an excuse for Jim Morrison to take a break

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When The Doors were first getting their act together, singer Jim Morrison wrote most of the songs -- which wore on the singer early on. According to guitarist Robby Krieger, the band wanted to play more originals so Morrison told them to write some of their own songs. When Krieger asked what he should write about Morrison told him, “something universal.”

Krieger worked out most of "Light My Fire" and Morrison fleshed out the lyrics. The entire band is credited for the track but Krieger is known as the member who gave the band their first bonafide hit and lit their career on fire.

The song length changed depending on the night

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Aside from its evocative lyrics, “Light My Fire” is mostly known for its extensive musical break that turned the song into a seven-minute jam on the album, and could extend much longer than that when the band started playing the song live. According to Krieger, the song could go one for a while if the band was in the mood. The song’s musical break is a great way to pass some time on stage, especially if Morrison was having an off night. Krieger said:

The length would change on the basis of the solos every night, you know, that just happened to be a snapshot of how we were playing that day. 

There’s An Uncredited Bass Player On The Track

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The band tracked the song together in Los Angeles on August 1966, and even though they never had a bass player their producer brought in Larry Knechtel, a member of the famed Wrecking Crew, to double Ray Manzarek’s bass notes that he played on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Knechtel never received credit for his work, and drummer John Densmore says that’s because he didn’t add anything new to the song:

Larry Knechtel wasn't credited because he duplicated Ray's left hand bass lines exactly. He didn't record with us on the tracks, he overdubbed later. This was a time before Moog synthesizers, and Rothchild felt (correctly) that Ray's lines needed more sonic punch from a string plucked in addition to a keyboard.

The song got them banned from Ed Sullivan

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It’s good that The Doors had two top-5 albums under their belt because they almost sabotaged their career when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Producers for the show, concerned about a possible drug reference, asked Morrison to change the lyrics of the song from “girl we couldn’t get much higher” to "girl we couldn’t get much better.” Morrison and the band agreed, and sang the producers' preferred lyrics in the run through.

When it came time to film the live version of the song Morrison sang the song’s original lyrics. Sullivan was so angry that he didn’t shake Morrison’s hand after the song and the band was told that they’d never perform on the Sullivan show again. Supposedly Morrison responded “Hey man. We just did the Sullivan show.”

Prior to the show, the producers had been talking about booking The Doors for a series of performances. Needless to say, those talks were abandoned.

Come on Buick light my fire

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The remaining members of The Doors aren’t paupers by any means, but they could have had a lot more money if they’d allowed the song to appear in a Buick commercial. According to drummer John Densmore, the band was offered $75,000 in October 1968 to change the song’s lyrics to say “Come on Buick light my fire.” With Morrison out of the country, the band agreed, and went into the studio to cut the new version. When Morrison found out what was happening he flipped his wig.

Densmore told Rolling Stone:

Jim told us he couldn’t trust us anymore. We had agreed that we would never use our music in any commercial, but the money Buick offered us had been hard to refuse. Jim accused us of making a deal with the devil and said he would smash a Buick with a sledgehammer onstage if we let them [change the lyrics].

A cover version put the song back in the charts

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“Light My Fire” didn’t stay out of the public consciousness for long. In 1968 a cover version by Latin pop-folk singer José Feliciano reached number three on the Billboard charts put the original version of the song back into the charts where it peaked at number 87. The song is genuinely infectious, so it makes sense that the track would be a hit multiple times within one year.

Feliciano’s version of the song is a jazzy take on the track, with a little bit of flamenco thrown in for fun. The track wound up netting Feliciano a Grammy Award for Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year. 

Tags: Ed Sullivan | Light My Fire | Remember This?... | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Doors

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.