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On This Day in Music... May 9, 1966: The Doors Audition to Become House Band at the Whisky a Go Go

The Doors' three-month residency represented a turning point in the fledgling group's fortunes.

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Source: MEGA

The Doors' Whisky residency put the band on the map.

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Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, West Hollywood’s famed Whisky a Go Go has undergone quite a few transformations since first opening its doors in 1964. In the late 1970s, it was a prime spot to see L.A. punk bands like X and the Germs as they were just beginning to outgrow more ramshackle venues in grimier corners of the city. In the 1980s, it was the epicenter of the city's glam metal scene that would produce the likes of Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue. In the 1990s, it was often the first West Coast stop for hyped-up international acts, with Oasis logging a memorably disastrous L.A. debut there in 1994. By the early 2000s, it had become a shadow of its former self, frequently serving as a pay-to-play venue for bands who wanted the bragging rights of having played there. It remains fully operational today, albeit more as a historical landmark than as the center of any thriving scene.

But in the mid-1960s, the Whisky might well have been the coolest rock club on earth, or at least on the West Coast. Every L.A. band of any note played there — the Mamas and the Papas, Love, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Mothers of Invention — and the club paid host to a who's-who of visiting notables, with the Beatles making headlines for a 1964 incident at the club involving Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, and a drink hurled at a photographer. But if there’s a single band that will forever be entwined with the Whisky’s early legacy, it’s the Doors, who had their first audition to be the club’s house band on this day in 1966.

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Source: MEGA

The Doors had been playing at the nearby London Fog bar when they got a chance to audition for the Whisky.

The idea that the Doors would come to be so indelibly associated with the Sunset Strip scene, and with the Whisky in particular, would have likely seemed strange to an average club-rat in early 1966. The L.A. music milieu — then and now — could be quite clubby and insular, and the Doors were hardly part of its inner circle. Barely a year old, they were darker than the average L.A. rock band…weirder, moodier, scuzzier. David Crosby, then the swaggering, drama-prone antihero of the local scene, held a particular disdain for the band. And the feeling was somewhat mutual.

Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek (who met frontman Jim Morrison when both were film students at UCLA) would later recall his view of the Sunset Strip landscape: “The Whisky was for Hollywood swingers. When you were at UCLA, it was the antithesis of everything artistic that you could imagine. Everyone derided it. It was slick and Hollywood and Sunset Strip — a rock ’n’ roll version of the Rat Pack.”

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Source: MEGA

The Whisky a Go Go remains operational, if diminished from its late-1960s glory.

Nonetheless, the four-piece had just begun to attract a small audience mere steps down Sunset Blvd., slogging it out as the house band at a smaller club called the London Fog. (According to drummer John Densmore, the Doors' early audiences at the club largely consisted of “sailors and perverts.”) It was there that Whisky booker Ronnie Haran caught one of the group’s performances, and invited them to audition for the marquee venue. As legend has it, Morrison insouciantly asked her for a day or two to “think about” the offer…even though the band had just been told by the London Fog management that their days at the club were over.

As Haran would later recall: "I knew Jim had star quality the minute I saw him. I had a hard time getting hold of him, though, because in those days he was living on the beach and no one knew quite where. He didn't have a pot to piss in. I had to dress him, get him some t-shirts and turtlenecks at the Army-Navy store. The leathers didn't come until several months later."

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The Doors auditioned on May 9, and they got the gig, in what would later prove to be one of the most pivotal moments in the band’s history. Playing on the Whisky stage nearly every night for the next three months, often two sets per night, the band began to develop into a serious force. Early songs like “Break on Through,” “Light My Fire” and “The End” grew more and more refined, and Morrison evolved from a sometimes standoffish performer into the magnetic frontman whose moves and postures would later be outright ripped-off by future generations of wannabe Lizard Kings. As the club’s default opening act for out-of-town headliners, they also had a front-row seat to some of the era's greatest visiting talent: Morrison famously joined his (unrelated) Belfast counterpart Van Morrison for an extended jam on “Gloria” during Them's headlining stint. (The Doors would continue to cover the song for years afterward.)

Suddenly, the onetime outsiders found themselves at the center of the local scene, and it wasn't long before the industry started to take notice. In particular, Elektra Records execs Jac Holzman and Paul A. Rothchild, who stopped by to take in several sets at the advice of Love's Arthur Lee. By then, the Doors were ready for their closeup. As guitarist Robby Krieger later remembered: “We’d play our songs every night and see how the audience reacted. When you play it live, you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. By the time we left the Whisky, we had enough songs for three albums.”

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Of course, the end of the Doors’ Whisky residency is a legend unto itself. Early versions of “The End” typically ended on a long jam, with Morrison sometimes indulging his more outre extemporaneous impulses. On the night of August 21, however, Morrison was in particularly rare form. He had gone missing during the band’s first set, and during intermission, his bandmates found him high on acid in his nearby hotel room, dragging him back to the club for the night’s final set. During the song’s chaotic coda, a thoroughly uninhibited Morrison began to improvise a spoken-word scene inspired by Sophocles' Oedipus Rex: “Father? ‘Yes, son?’ I’m going to kill you. Mother…?” Well, you probably know what comes next.

The Whisky crowd reportedly went into hysterics, though the club’s owners were less than pleased, and the Doors never appeared at the Whisky again. They couldn't have been too miffed by their abrupt dismissal, however, as they had just signed a record deal with Elektra three days earlier. Later that month, they would find themselves ensconced in Sunset Sound Studios recording their self-titled debut album, which would hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts the following winter. Two summers after their eventful Whisky residency, they’d be headlining the Hollywood Bowl.


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