The Doors’ Ray Manzarek Walks You Through the Writing of the Band’s Iconic Song, “Riders on the Storm”

“An old cowpoke went ridin’ out one dark and windy day….”

So begins Vaughn Monroe’s 1949 cowboy song “Riders in the Sky,” a tale about a “ghost herd in the sky.”

And so began, at first, The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” one of the band’s most iconic tunes, which, as Ray Manzarek explains above, started out with him and guitarist Robby Krieger playing around on Krieger’s “twang guitar” in their rehearsal studio. As Manzarek tells it, Jim Morrison burst in on the jam session with lyrics. To turn the Monroe-inspired tune into a Doors’ song, Manzarek decided “we got to put some jazz to it, make it dark.”

Watch him reenact the magic: bassist Jerry Scheff (formerly of Elvis’ TCB Band) stretches himself to learn the bass part, Manzarek simulates rain with a descending scale, engineer Bruce Botnick pulls out the pre-recorded thunder….

The haunted Old West feel of Monroe’s “Riders in the Sky” remains—in the quavering tremolo of Krieger’s guitar lines—but crooner Vaughn Monroe would never sing a line about a killer’s brain “squirmin’ like a toad.” Instead of ghost cowboys, the “insane part” of the second verse features a murderous drifter who might just kill your family.

This creepy image hearkens back to the centerpiece of The Doors’ self-titled debut album, “The End,” with its homicidal spoken word section that seemed to announce the band as the soundtrack to the sixties’ dark demise, capped off by their last 1971, album, L.A. Woman, and “Riders on the Storm.” (Jazz & Pop magazine called L.A. Woman “a return to the tight fury of early Doors’ music.”)

In the video—an extra from the documentary The Doors: Mr. Mojo Risin’—the Story of L.A. Woman—Manzarek sings the lyrics, but hardly does justice to Morrison’s smooth delivery. It’s fitting in a way that the band’s last album would feature a blues derived from a Monroe song, whose muscular baritone (he was called “the Baritone with Muscles”) was such a prominent sound in an earlier, less anarchic, time.

“Riders on the Storm” contains within it the seeds of Morrison’s idea for a “movie about a hitchhiking killer,” says Manzarek, “but he couldn’t leave it at that. The song was just too haunted and too beautiful. It was almost as if he had a premonition” of his own death. He also had a premonition of ‘70s cinema, with its disaffected loner killers and bleak neo-Westerns, reflections of the decades’ own Vietnam-era darkness.

Related Content:

“The Lost Paris Tapes” Preserves Jim Morrison’s Final Poetry Recordings from 1971

The Doors Play Live in Denmark & LA in 1968: See Jim Morrison Near His Charismatic Peak

William S. Burroughs “Sings” R.E.M. and The Doors, Backed by the Original Bands

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Matthew K says:

    For all the younger beings out there, Ray Manzarek died in 2013. This article reads like he still may be alive.

  • John macaluso says:

    One of the best keyboard players in R&R history…..trained in classical music. Train that left hand like Ray’s and you will have sonething.

  • Ruston says:

    i all ways try to do that keyboard solo on my accordion.believe me,it is a acid man what a beauty that song is allways sound like the first time i heard it

  • Steve Ward says:

    Ray is so enthusiastic. A tru pro

  • Tristan says:

    Did Ray and this article not realize that the hitchhiking murderer that is mentioned in the song is a reference to Billy Cook, a spree killer from the 50s who murdered an entire family, as said in the song? “If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.”

  • Josh Jones says:

    Did not know that, thanks!

  • Gene r smith says:

    Long live the doors an era in my life I will never forget along with the acid trips,and as the song goes “if you give this man a ride sweet memory will die,thanks and God bless

  • G.smith says:

    If you give this man a ride sweet memory will die

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