June 3, 1967: The Doors’ “Light My Fire” debuts on Billboard Magazine’s ‘Hit Parade’ at number 29. By July 29 of 1967 it was The Doors’ first number one hit single and the first number one hit single for Elektra Records after eighteen years in business. But “Light My Fire” almost wasn’t released as a single, and the tale of how it was is one of the most legendary stories in rock ‘n’ roll history.
The Doors had Jim Morrison’s songs that he’d written on a Venice Beach rooftop in the early summer of 1965, but it wasn’t enough original material to play full sets at the London Fog, the small bar where The Doors were the house band. After a rehearsal, Jim Morrison gave the other Doors some ‘homework’: write a song for the next rehearsal with the admonition that it be about one of the four elements — earth, wind, water, or fire. At the next rehearsal Doors guitarist Robby Krieger was the only one who appeared with a song.
“Light My Fire” is a truly collaborative song. When Krieger brought the song in he only had the first chorus, “you know it would be untrue/you know that I would be a liar/if I was to say to you/girl, we couldn’t get much higher.” The chorus and the guitar chords Kreiger had were inspired by Buffalo Springfield and sounded more like a folk song. Morrison quickly filled in a second verse with “the time to hesitate is through/no time to wallow in the mire/try now we can only lose/and our love become a funeral pyre.” Drummer John Densmore, who had become interested in Latin music, suggested a Bossa Nova beat and Ray Manzarek quickly worked out the now iconic opening to the song which he said was inspired by Bach. Although Krieger later said he wrote “Light My Fire” in twenty minutes, he said some of the rough drafts were less than spectacular, like “come on baby breathe my air.”
As The Doors played clubs like the London Fog and The Whisky a Go-Go they improvised and lengthened the solos until by the recording sessions for their first album the song was running about ten minutes long. The first side of The Doors’ debut album showcased the lyrics and singing of Jim Morrison. But “Light My Fire” was the band’s chance to show the world that The Doors were more than Jim Morrison’s lyrics, and “Light My Fire” was the proof of The Doors’ synergistic melding of words and music.
After “Light My Fire” was recorded and “The Doors” was released, the song wasn’t guaranteed to go to number one, and in fact it wasn’t even Elektra Records’ first choice to be released as a single. That honor went to “Break On Through” with the flip side being “End of the Night.” “Break on Through” stalled out at number 64 on the Billboard charts in the early spring of ’67. Elektra and The Doors started hearing from radio stations and DJs such as Dave Diamond, whose show “The Diamond Mine” was considered one of the first underground radio programs, that they were getting requests for “Light My Fire” but it was too long for the strictures of the AM radio format of 2-minute-30-second songs. At first The Doors resisted, as they didn’t want to record a shorter version, and they thought an edited version of the song, with the solos removed, would cut the heart out of the song.
Elektra owner Jac Holzman wanted a single version of “Light My Fire,” and to answer The Doors’ apprehension he promised them that if they didn’t like the edited version it wouldn’t be released. Doors producer Paul Rothchild made the edits. After hearing the edited version The Doors were still resistant until Holzman asked them “But does it work?“
The Doors agreed it did and approved the edited version. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek always claimed that when “Light My Fire” came on the radio he couldn’t tell if it was going to be the edited version or the full-length version until it played out. Elektra released “Light My Fire” as a single and it entered Billboard’s Hot 100 on June 3rd 1967 and quickly drove its way to number one on Billboards charts.
As a reward for “Light My Fire” becoming a hit single for The Doors and Elektra, Jac Holzman asked each member of the band what they wanted as a present. John Densmore chose a horse, Ray and Robby got some of the first Sony black-and-white reel-to-reel video tape recorders, Jim Morrison asked for and received a 1967 GT500 Shelby Mustang, and Holzman bought himself a new Rolex watch.
“Light My Fire” stayed in the number one position for three weeks and on the charts for fourteen. The success of “Light My Fire” propelled the sales of the album and The Doors’ self-titled first album stayed on the charts for two years. “Light My Fire” quickly become one of the songs that came to define the era, that time and place known as “The Summer of Love.”
Note: Sources differ on the release date of the single of “Light My Fire”. Some have June 1, and others June 3, a Thursday and Saturday respectively.
Originally published June 3, 2014.