Credit: Elektra Records / Joel Brodsky

How Jim Morrison’s defiance got The Doors banned from The Ed Sullivan Show

We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to revisit a momentous occasion in the career of the counter-culture kings The Doors. It was a moment which could have quite easily cost them their career but, in the end, may well have made it. It was the moment they were banned from The Ed Sullivan show.

During the sixties, there was no show on television quite like The Ed Sullivan show, its vast appeal transcended class and generational divide, seemingly gathering every family in front of their TV set. Equally, during the sixties, there was no band quite like The Doors and their enigmatic lead singer Jim Morrison. So when these two juggernauts of popular culture met there were great expectations—after all, it had gone so well for The Beatles. But, instead, it all went very badly, very quickly.

With a recently scored number one in their holster, following the rise of their single ‘Light My Fire’, The Doors were the hottest band around and were a shoo-in for a special spot on the esteemed variety show. Led by Morrisson, The Doors represented the dark and devilish side of pop music and Sullivan’s team knew it.

Subversive, sultry and deeply sexual, the band had carved out a niche in the mainstream as the underbelly of the swinging sixties with Morrisson, in particular, becoming a walking talking icon of the counterculture movement. Ray Manzarek later said of the decade and the movement they found themselves in: “the battle was between the hip and the non- hip, the heads and the straights, the psychedelics and the squares — and that was basically the battle — the establishment against the hippies.”

On the other side of the coin, Ed Sullivan had been the man crowning musical royalty for nearly two decades when The Doors showed up to his fabled studio. Sullivan had been massively influential for both Elvis and The Beatles’ startling careers, so the opportunity for The Doors to follow suit was quite clearly laid out in front of them and their path to success road mapped, extensively. Simply put: “do as we say and you’ll go far.” But, instead of becoming behemoths of the industry that September night, the band and Morrisson would instead find themselves banned from the show forever.

The Ed Sullivan Show was never a particularly ‘hip’ show. It had launched some giant careers but that didn’t mean it wasn’t seen as a key part of the establishment. Manzarek, along with the rest of the band, were surprised by their invitation to be on the family-friendly variety show. He recalls finding out the band were scheduled to appear on the show: “My wife and I were watching at home…Ed, at the end of the show came on and said, ‘Next week we’re going to have…a rock group from California, The Doors doing their number one hit ‘Light My Fire.’ We looked at each other, saying ‘Oh I guess we’re on The Ed Sullivan Show next week.'”

Meeting a legend of TV is always a big deal, especially back in the sixties, Sullivan was typically ambiguous with his comments. “You boys look great, [but] you ought to smile a little more,” said the typically stone-faced Sullivan when approaching the band as they rehearsed in the CBS Studio before the big night on September 17th, 1967.

Following Sullivan’s words, but not apparently under his instruction, a producer duly followed up after him to discuss a much more serious matter, a contentious lyric in the band’s number one single ‘Light My Fire’. The lyric was “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” with the suggestion of changing the word form “higher” to “better”.

The television producer was keen to keep the show aligned with its family audience and suggested that the reference to illegal drug use would upset the folks watching at home. Naturally, the poet and artist he was, Morrison was furious with the suggestion and largely disagreed with the idea from the very beginning. While the band, most likely looking at the potential for record sales and worldwide success following the performance, agreed to adhere to the changes as the producer left the room Morrison was heard to defiantly say: “We’re not changing a word.”

The band were the last act of the night and followed legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s debut on the show. The introduction from Sullivan was short and to the point, clearly fed up of dealing with these mop-tops youths by now as the screaming crowd began to wail as they now invariably did: “Now, The Doors…here they are with their newest hit record, ‘People are Strange’.” The touching and emotional track was ably performed and the band soon segue into their number one single ‘Light my Fire’.

As you’ve likely gleaned by now, The Doors would not make the changes to the lyrics as requested, instead, they would perform the song as it was intended with Morrisson stoically delivering the lyric. As the poet says his words, the camera pans across to Ray Manzarek doing his best work on the organ but also catching guitarist Robby Kreiger smirking at the disobedience, clearly envisioning the telling off they were about to get.

“That was wonderful. Just great!” says Sullivan as the song draws the show to a close. But instead of his usual handshake, Sullivan cuts quickly to commercial. While Sullivan is gracious the producers were not. They furiously told the band “Mr. Sullivan wanted you for six more shows, but you’ll never work The Ed Sullivan Show again.”

Morrisson replied, “Hey, man. We just did the Sullivan show.” It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. By 1967, the Summer of Love had come into full effect and the West Coast was brimming with a new movement. For all those hippies and free spirits attending The Doors shows, upsetting the Ed Sullivan establishment was more important, it was far more valuable to be banned by the show than to ever appear again.

Watch the performance below as The Doors get themselves banned from the Ed Sullivan show in 1967.

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