By Chris M. Junior
Singer, lyricist, poet, shaman, sex symbol: Jim Morrison was all of these and more during his career with The Doors. Since Morrison’s mysterious death in Paris at age 27 on July 3, 1971, his legend has grown, thanks in part to those who recorded and performed with him sharing memories of their personal and creative moments.
Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek often paints a big-screen picture when discussing his experiences with Morrison. That’s only natural, considering Manzarek met Morrison while they were students at UCLA’s film school.
Their first performance together is chronicled in great detail early on in Manzarek’s book “Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors” (published in 1998). Manzarek, who, as Screaming Ray Daniels, sang with a band called Rick and the Ravens (that featured his two younger brothers), was playing a gig at a place called the Turkey Joint West in Santa Monica, Calif. Morrison and some other UCLA film students were in the crowd, and Manzarek could hear Morrison calling out for “Louie Louie” from the back of the room.
Manzarek and the band obliged, but not before he introduced Morrison as a guest singer.
“He bopped around and sang himself hoarse, what with his whoops and yells and screams and shouts and his untrained vocal cords,” Manzarek wrote. “But he loved it. … That was the first time Jim Morrison ever sang onstage.”
Manzarek’s most cinematic Morrison memory is arguably the time they crossed paths in summer 1965 — by then both were UCLA grads — on the beach in Venice, Calif. Manzarek was enjoying a day in the sun by himself when, as he wrote in his book, he saw a guy “in semi-silhouette, wearing cutoffs, without a shirt, weighing about 135 pounds. Thin, about six feet tall; rail-thin kind of guy with long hair. There was something strangely familiar about this watery apparition. Was this a manifestation of the ocean itself? Did our mother conjure up this solidity? Or was this a projection of my own Jungian inclinations toward liquidity and wholeness? I looked again, with more intensity, and who should emerge from the light, from behind the sun, into my field of vision, into my field of consciousness, but Jim Morrison!”
Manzarek called out to Morrison, whom he thought had moved to New York. As they exchanged small talk about that and other topics, Morrison borrowed lines and looks from the likes of Paul Newman, James Dean and Steve McQueen.
The conversation — and ultimately their relationship — changed dramatically when Morrison told Manzarek he had been writing some songs. Manzarek then coaxed his shy friend into singing one: “Moonlight Drive.” Impressed, Manzarek asked to hear more, and Morrison obliged by singing “My Eyes Have Seen You.”
Right then and there, Manzarek suggested to Morrison that they put a band together, predicting they’d “make a million dollars.”
“Ray, that’s exactly what I had in mind,” Morrison replied.
Flash forward to 2011: Manzarek says he, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore had a special way of collaborating with Morrison.
“Jim did not play an instrument,” Manzarek says. “So basically, he heard songs in his head and would sing them with his lyrics, then John, Robby and I would create the melody, the arrangement, the chord changes and the rhythm. We would create the music of The Doors around him and nestle and caress and massage his words and bring out all the hidden meaning behind the words.”
When it came time to record his vocals, Morrison followed a regular ritual.
“He would have a shot of whiskey,” Manzarek says. “You gotta limber up those nodes and vocal cords, you know? You’ve got to give them a little stimulation. He’d take a deep breath, walk right in and nail it — unless he had a little too much massaging of the nodes and vocal cords. Then he would get it the next day. But most of the time, I’d say 75 percent or 80 percent of the time, he was right there. He was very professional in the studio. This legendary maniac was very, very good in the studio.”
Guest musicians were common on Doors albums, but it wasn’t until “L.A. Woman” that the group included a second guitarist: Texas native Marc Benno.
With his first solo album under his belt, Benno was back home in the Lone Star State when he got a call from Bruce Botnick, the longtime engineer for The Doors who was going to co-produce the “L.A. Woman” album with the band. David Anderle, who produced Benno’s debut album and was a Botnick friend, had recommended the guitarist for the project. Benno remembers the two-story building in Los Angeles where the album was recorded as a “deep-thinking environment,” with Morrison referring to the words he had written in a big book.
“I think someone from England had given it to him,” he says. “It was gigantic, like an L.A. phonebook, but it was leather-bound and full of poems, lyrics and drawings. I remember him showing me ‘L.A. Woman,’ and I thought, ‘That right there will be a great blues tune of sorts.’”
Benno played guitar on that song as well as a few others. During the sessions, Morrison “got into it as if he was performing to a live audience. He had a handheld mike, and that’s when I realized, ‘This guy is getting so into it.’ My jaw dropped when he started doing the vocals.”
One day, Morrison took Benno to lunch at the Blue Boar, which the guitarist recalls serving “a lot of game and unusual foods — the most normal thing on the menu was turtle soup.”
Morrison brought more than a guest to the restaurant.
“He had a bottle of Jack Daniels with him,” Benno says. “I said, ‘Are you going to walk in [with that]?’ And he said, ‘They know me; it’s OK.’ And when he walked in, it was, ‘Mr. Morrison!’”
Back at the studio, Morrison took notice whenever Benno played Freddie King guitar licks and Leon Russell-style piano between takes.
“He would just stand there and watch and smile at me,” Benno says.