The Blues Roots Of The Doors

The Blues Roots Of The Doors

the roots of the doors
The Doors, 1966 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Thanks to the Rolling Stones, the western world in the mid-60s was exploding with teenage blues bands. In America, the music was discovered by a countless number of kids, many of whom lived within miles of clubs and bars where the music had been played for decades, shunned or ignored by white audiences. Down South there’d been greater awareness already – obviously Elvis Presley was hip to a lot of blues and R&B music, and his efforts had encouraged other white kids to explore it, and indeed the cultural exchange in Memphis was such that white musicians like Steve Cropper were so well-versed in the music that they were backing artists of colour like Otis Redding in the Stax Records studio and on stage. Of course, the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had crossed over to a rock’n’roll audience and had hits, but kids in Chicago heard the likes of the Stones and the Yardbirds play other songs that had been recorded only recently and a few miles away at Chess Records. Kids in Cleveland probably didn’t realise that the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now” had been written and first recorded by local Bobby Womack of the Valentinos, and kids in California probably didn’t realise there was a thriving West Coast blues scene featuring many players who’d made their way across from Texas and elsewhere.  
There’s no evidence that the Doors were hip to the West Coast blues scene when they formed in the mid-60s out of an earlier band named Rock & the Ravens that Ray Manzarek had formed with his two brothers. But they were hip to popular Rhythm & Blues numbers like Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” and Barrett Strong’s early Motown hit “Money”, both of which featured in their early set. By the time the Doors got a residency at the small and rundown Los Angeles club, The London Fog, (where they appeared on a bill with an “exotic dancer”) in the early months of 1966 they were digging a bit deeper, and the following year they made a strong blues statement by opening the second side of their debut album with a powerful version of Howlin’ Wolf’s terrifyingly masculine “Back Door Man”. The Doors had a gravitas that served the blues better than many of their rock contemporaries, and blues would remain part of their musical language throughout their existence.
Let’s have a look at some of the Doors’ blues explorations.
“Baby Please Don’t Go”

It was Van Morrison and his early group Them who brought introduced this classic song into the rock canon in 1964 (the Doors famously also performed Them’s classic “Gloria”) although their version was learned from a 1953 version by Muddy Waters. The song itself goes back to Delta blues musician Big Joe Williams, who recorded it in 1935.

The Doors London Fog version


Big Joe Williams

Muddy Waters


“Rock Me” / “Rock Me Baby”

The Doors version of “Rock Me” is credited to Muddy Waters, although it could just as easily be credited to BB King, whose 1962 recording of the song as “Rock Me Baby” was a minor hit in 1964. With both artists claiming writing credits for what was essentially the same song (and interestingly the Doors used BB’s title of “Rock Me Baby” rather than Muddy’s more succinct “Rock Me”), the song has evident roots in earlier blues numbers and is indeed one of the most covered of all blues standards. The Doors later performed the song on stage with contemporary blues great Albert King – we’ll hear that version as well.

The Doors London Fog version


Muddy Waters


The Doors with Albert King


“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”

Another Doors London Fog blues highlight was “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, also recorded by Muddy Waters, and written by legendary Chess Records figure Willie Dixon. The song bears similarities to Bo Diddley’s subsequent “I’m A Man” (which was famously covered by Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds), and Muddy’s own “Mannish Boy”, which saw Muddy knowingly borrow from Bo’s song, perhaps as payback for Bo borrowing from Muddy in the first place. The songs unabashed machismo was obviously a perfect fit for a young Jim Morrison keen to assert his own virility.

The Doors London Fog version


Muddy Waters


“Little Red Rooster” aka “The Red Rooster”

Another one that the Doors performed onstage with Albert King in 1970. Another hugely influential Willie Dixon song, “Little Red Rooster” was first recorded in 1961 by Howlin’ Wolf and introduced to the rock world in 1964 by the Rolling Stones.

The Doors with Albert King


Howlin Wolf


“Who Do You Love?”

“Who Do You Love?” was another Bo Diddley gem – originally recorded in 1956 – which upped Willie Dixon’s ante and featured the most vivid and hilarious boasting ever put to music, including the classic opening couplet: “I walk 47 miles of barbed wire/I use a cobra-snake for a necktie”. It was a Doors live staple and famously featured on their classic live album Absolutely Live.

The Doors Absolutely Live version


Bo Diddley


"I'm A King Bee"

More bragging blues, this time from the swamps of Louisiana, where producer JD Miller, working for Nashville’s Excello label, was recording almost as many great blues sides as Chess in the early 60s. First recorded by Slim Harpo, and also covered by the Stones in 1965, “I’m A King Bee” was perfect fodder for the Doors and features on their 1967 Matrix recordings, alongside versions of “Who Do You Love”, “Rock Me Baby”, another Willie Dixon/Muddy waters number called “Close To You” and a couple of classic blues numbers they would famously record, “Back Door Man” and “Crawling King Snake”.

The Doors Live At The Matrix version


Slim Harpo


“Back Door Man”

The aforementioned highlight of the Doors’ first album, “Back Door Man” was first recorded by Chess artist Howlin’ Wolf, a giant of a man whose colossal voice was one of the most distinctive and potent ever recorded. Overtly sexual – which suited the Doors just fine – the song was written by that man Willie Dixon again, and first released in 1961.

The Doors version


Howlin’ Wolf


“Crawling King Snake”

Included in the Doors’ set in the early days – as mentioned a version appears on their Live at the Matrix 1967 set (which was first released in 2008) – John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” would feature prominently on their 1971 album LA Woman. Although the song had its origins in the 1920s (echoes of it can be heard in classic recordings "Black Snake Moan" by Blind Lemon Jefferson and "Black Snake Blues" by Victoria Spivey), it was first recorded as "Crawling King Snake” by Big Joe Williams 1941, and picked up by Hooker at the end of the same decade.

The Doors LA Woman version


John Lee Hooker


To finish, let’s hear a couple of the Doors’ heroes returning the favour with covers of a couple of classic Doors originals. Taken from the 2000 Doors tribute album Stoned Immaculate, here are recordings by John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley that do the Doors’ blues roots proud. 

John Lee Hooker & The Doors “Roadhouse Blues”


Bo Diddley “Love Her Madly”


Before The Doors took the music scene by a storm in 1967, they were the house band at the London Fog, a Sunset Strip dive bar located just footsteps away from the world famous Whisky a Go Go, the future home of many of the band’s most legendary performances. First released in 2016 as a collector’s edition boxed set, London Fog 1966 is now be available as a single CD edition for the first time, here

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