Fifty years ago, on 3 July 1971, Jim Morrison died mysteriously in a Parisian bathtub, survived by his three partners: Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, who had worked tirelessly for six years to translate his dreams into music.

Jim Morrison's first outing with The Doors was on the sands of Venice Beach, California, in 1965. Under the moon and under the influence of LSD, he recited poems from his notebook in front of his UCLA classmate, Ray Manzarek, who had fallen under the spell. The two former film students decided that night that they would form a band. “Morrison had the look”, Manzarek said later. “I knew that right off the bat, I was like, ah the girls are gonna love this guy. I don’t give a shit about that, man. We’re gonna make great music together, the music and the poetry, the words, and the music are gonna blend together and just be absolutely brilliant.”

This was how all of The Doors recording sessions went: the Lizard King whispering his prophecies like a pythia, with a trio of musicians trying to interpret them. Joined by the guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore, Manzarek became the conductor of a whole orchestra devoted to setting Jim Morrison's lyrics to music. This is how the band came to publish the album An American Prayer, seven years after his death, in 1978. It was a record which the trio composed around poems by the singer. Robby Krieger always considered this album one of the best in their entire discography. “That was the whole idea behind it — like I said, poetry and music together. Guys used to do that back before us. Allen Ginsberg and those kinds of guys, they would do poetry and they might have some jazz playing with them. But for a pop group to do something like that, it hadn’t really been done.”

A club band

It was in the clubs of Los Angeles that The Doors made their first attempts with this format. For two years, the group struggled to break through, but Jim Morrison was having a good time. "I just remember that some of the best musical trips we ever took were in clubs. Concerts are great but it gets into a crowd phenomenon that really hasn’t that much to do with music. In a club there’s a different atmosphere. They can see you sweat and you can see them. And there’s much less bullshit. In a concert situation, you can’t really lose. You get that many people together and it doesn’t matter so much what you do. In a club you have to turn people on musically. If it doesn’t cut it, everyone knows it.”, he explained to Rolling Stone in 1969.

The Doors were finally spotted by the boss of the label Elektra after a performance at Whisky a Go Go in LA. They quickly recorded their first album (in just a month, in September 1966) using the best of their club set-list and leaning heavily on a Blues sound, as on their cover of Back Door Man by Willie Dixon. The Doors came out in January 67, carried by the single Break On Through (To the Other Side). And after that, once again, the band was becalmed. Success came that April, with the release of Light My Fire, originally a seven minute track, which was cut in half by producer Paul Rothchild. The song caught on, and finally The Doors found recognition across the USA.

Impressed by the success of Light My Fire, the label decided to strike while the iron was hot. A month later, The Doors were back in the studio again, rushing to record a second album, Strange Days, which was released in September 1967. Even by the standards of the time, this was a frantic pace of work, but the Californians took it in their stride. Morrison was already on something of an ego trip and was developing a drinking problem. But nevertheless these sessions proved particularly creatively fruitful. The band was obsessed by the album Sgt. Pepper's by The Beatles, for which they had received a promo copy before its general release in June 1967. "Despite the pressure, I would say that was our most fun recording,” Densmore said later. “First of all, we had written both albums before we even went in the studio – 30 or 40 songs. But the first album, we were a little intimidated by the studio. It wasn’t our turf. We had to learn how to make records. And I would say by the second album we were more relaxed and we started using the studio as the fifth Door. I think we had an early copy of Sgt. Pepper and we were really turned on to experimenting with the studio and doing backward piano tracks and having a lot of fun.”

While this album did not achieve the same fame as its predecessor, several of its tracks have become a part of rock'n'roll's collective heritage, like People Are Strange, inspired by a bad trip that Morrison went on one night at Laurel Canyon, Love Me Two Times and When the Music's Over. The album also includes Moonlight Drive, the first song that Morrison hummed for Manzarek back on Venice Beach, brought to life here by the studio's new Moog synthesiser.