The otherworldly jazz-rock of the Doors had significantly more earthbound beginnings in Rick and the Ravens, a Santa Monica bar band specializing in surf and blues. The group was fronted by Ray Manczarek (as he spelled it then), who assumed the persona of “Screamin’ Ray Daniels, the Bearded Blues Shouter.” Together with brothers Rick on guitar and Jim on organ and harmonica, as well as other assorted school friends, he spent early 1965 playing regular weekend gigs at the Turkey Joint West, a dive for “swingin’ young people” located just blocks from the beach. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just having fun,” Manzarek recalled later.
Rick and the Ravens were often visited at the Turkey Joint by Manzarek’s UCLA film school classmates, including a young Jim Morrison – who was already displaying a penchant for booze. “When Jim got loose he would shout out song titles at the band, mainly ‘Louie Louie,'” Manzarek wrote in his memoir, Light My Fire. “We could always hear him barking from the back of the room.” One night Manzarek decided to teach his drunken friend a lesson. Leaning into the mic, “Screamin’ Ray” invited Morrison onto the stage to help him sing a “special version” of the Kingsmen classic. Though he’d never sung for an audience, Morrison wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. “Jim let out a blood-curdling war whoop, and the Turkey Joint West went Dionysian,” he continued. “The fucking place exploded! He was good. And he loved it. He hopped around and sang himself hoarse.”
For a time, Morrison’s drunken stint as a frontman seemed destined to be a one-off event. Upon graduating UCLA in May 1965, he planned to move to New York, leaving Manzarek to seek his fortune as an aspiring filmmaker when he wasn’t playing the Bearded Soul Shouter. Ultimately the future Lizard King decided to stay on the West Coast, and one day that July he bumped into Manzarek while strolling Venice Beach. It was a meeting that would change both their lives forever. “I said, ‘Well, what have you been up to?'” Manzarek told NPR’s Fresh Air in 1998. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ve been living up on Dennis Jacobs’ rooftop, consuming a bit of LSD and writing songs.'” After some convincing, he persuaded the shy Morrison to sing him one. “He began to sing ‘Moonlight Drive,’ and when I heard that first stanza – ‘Let’s swim to the moon, let’s climb through the tide, penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide’ – I thought, ‘Ooh, spooky and cool, man.'” Then and there, they decided to start a band.
With their passé name and tired sound, Rick and Ravens were far from the ideal vehicle for Morrison’s far-out lyrics, but Manzarek was in no position to be picky. The group had previously released three promo singles – “Soul Train,” “Henrietta,” and “Big Bucket T” – on Aura Records, a subsidiary label of World Pacific. The tunes had tanked and by the late summer the group were, in Manzarek’s estimation, “going nowhere. Nothing was happening. No record sales, no gigs. Dissent descended on the Ravens.” The rhythm section had departed and the remaining members were not especially receptive to Morrison’s mysterious poetry, which they viewed as the height of pretension.
Sensing Manzarek’s existential malaise, the label’s ultra-hip chief, Dick Bock, suggested he take a class on transcendental meditation. It was there that Manzarek first crossed paths with a drummer named John Densmore, who was welcomed into the fold. Though they owed Aura Records one more single, Manzarek convinced Bock to let the newly outfitted Rick and the Ravens cut a demo disc instead. On September 2nd, Morrison, Densmore, Manzarek, his brothers and a bassist named Patricia “Pat” Hansen spent three hours cutting six original tracks: “Moonlight Drive, “My Eyes Have Seen You,” “Summer’s Almost Gone,” “Hello I Love You,” “Go Insane” and “End of the Night.” While the compositions were undoubtedly strong, the execution felt lackluster, weak, almost timid. Record execs agreed, and a discouraged Rick and Jim Manzarek quit both the band and the music business that autumn. In their place Manzarek recruited another acquaintance from meditation class, a guitarist named Robbie Krieger. He had briefly played with Densmore in a band called the Psychedelic Rangers, and this new group would also draw inspiration from mind expansion. Taking a cue from a William Blake line (by way of Aldous Huxley) they called themselves the Doors.