In the summer of 1967, “Light My Fire” broke The Doors onto the national charts in the USA. But their performance of the song on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 17, 1967 would bring The Doors into the national consciousness, when Jim Morrison famously didn’t censor the lyrics as the Sullivan show producers requested.
The Doors’ appearance on the Sullivan show is a widely known tale. Sullivan and his staff asked The Doors to change the lyric “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” to “Girl, we couldn’t get much better” because Sullivan feared it was a drug reference. (The Doors might not have been too surprised at this request, because Elektra Records had censored, or edited out if you prefer, “she gets high” from “Break on Through.”) The Doors agreed to alter the lyric, but when they went onstage to perform the song — unlike most other shows of the time, performances on Sullivan were live — Jim Morrison sang the line as Robby Krieger had written it.
(If you’d like to see a full high-quality version of the performance, it’s included on The Doors Collection DVD.)
In Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” the moment is presented with some cinematic hyperbole, showing Morrison screaming the word “higher” into the camera and then somehow displaying a close-up of his leather pants. But the reality was more subtle, and the TV audience didn’t realize what they were seeing. Morrison stood in front of the microphone and sang the word “higher” naturally with no added emphasis at all. The only visible reaction by The Doors is when the camera pans over to Krieger and you can see him smiling.
Gathering around the TV set to watch Ed Sullivan had become a ritual for American families in the 1960s. The show was a true variety show with its roots in Vaudeville; you might see a comedian, followed by a guy spinning plates, followed by a dancing bear. Ed Sullivan also introduced the USA to Elvis Presley and The Beatles. This huge national audience gave Sullivan a lot of power, and he wielded it, famously censoring or trying to censor performances by rock and roll acts.
Sullivan initially didn’t want to book Presley at all because Presley’s swiveling hips were deemed too provocative. It was only after Steve Allen ‘scooped’ Sullivan with Presley’s appearance and a huge ratings draw that Sullivan relented and invited Presley to perform. And when acts such as Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Byrds appeared on his show, Sullivan either forced or tried to force them to change their lyrics. The Doors most famously didn’t comply with Sullivan’s wishes, but neither did Diddley or Dylan. Splitting the difference, Mick Jagger mumbled his way through the Stones’ performance of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” in January 1967.
After The Doors’ segment, the Sullivan people were furious. Years later, Ray Manzarek related what had happened backstage. One of the producers confronted the band, screaming that they had “broken their promise” and were never going to play The Ed Sullivan Show again. Manzarek, trying to smooth things over, said that in all the excitement they had just forgotten. But Jim Morrison landed the last word with “Hey man, we just did The Ed Sullivan Show.” The incident cemented The Doors’ image into legend as rebels, both in the eyes of the counterculture and the establishment.
Originally published September 17, 2015 and appears in “The Doors Examined.”