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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