Robby Krieger’s album “Versions” is one that you might easily bypass while flipping through crates of records while digging for vinyl. It has a very unmemorable cover and isn’t an album which has ever made an impact on the history of music. However, hidden on it is something pretty special. Released in 1982 with little attention, “Versions” is the former Doors guitarist second solo project, and has him playing not only original compositions, but taking a stab at songs by The Rolling Stones, the Four Tops and Duke Ellington. However, the second track on the album is an original Krieger song called “Her Majesty” which featured Robby playing with his former bandmates Ray Manzarek and John Densmore. This is one of the final original songs ever recorded by, at the time, the three surviving members of The Doors. Released four years after their reunion for the critically acclaimed album “An American Prayer” which had the band playing alongside recordings of Jim Morrison reading poetry made in the late 1960’s, “Her Majesty” is the last recording that I can find of the Doors together in the studio recording an original song (if a Doors expert out there knows of any other original recordings by the trio after 1982 please write me and let me know – there could be something and I’d love to know about it). A second recording from the session is also on the album with the three Doors taking a very different approach on “The Crystal Ship” with a little bit of a ska twist. It’s not classic Doors fare, but it is a landmark recording session forgotten by fans which makes “Versions” a nice little oddity.
For some reason, Robby Krieger’s massive contribution to the architecture of The Doors music has sort of been overlooked. But as the quietest of all the Doors, it is easy for him to be eclipsed by the massive entity that was Jim Morrison. When he appeared alongside Morrison, Robby seemed to be in a hypnotic haze as if he didn’t know where he was, and his fingers were just moving alongside the guitar as if they were completely detached. Over the years, as the Doors mythology grew, Jim became the face, the voice and the legend, while Ray Manzarek was the heart, the brains and the leader and John Densmore was the moody yet spiritual one. But Robby’s contribution to the Doors went far further than just being the quiet guitarist. What seems to be overlooked is he was one of the primary songwriters within the group, being responsible for many of the Doors biggest and most beloved songs.
Now, to be fair, the creation of the Doors songs was a true collaborative effort, and as a result, they shared the songwriting credits on all their albums, for the exception of “The Soft Parade.” Jim Morrison could write great lyrics, but he couldn’t write music nor play any instruments, so he really depended on his bandmates to put the music together. Ray would come in with those incredible organ riffs that made up the Doors signature sound and John would bring some very imaginative drumming to each song (listen to his drums at the end of “When the Music’s Over” to hear what I mean), while Robby held the songs as a musical glue together with his guitar. But when bringing the skeletons of what would be the songs that would be built up by the group, Robby contributed almost as many as Jim Morrison did.
Much like a Beatles fan can figure out which songs were written by John and which song was written by Paul, Doors fans can easily figure out which song was a Jim Morrison one, and which song was by Robby Krieger. If the song is rich with poetic metaphors and contains sex, drugs or death it’s probably a Jim Morrison composition. If it’s a bit more straight forward and radio friendly, it’s a Robby Krieger song. Of the fifteen songs that the Doors had in Billboard’s top 100, six were written by Robby Kriger – “Light My Fire,” “Touch Me,” “Lover Her Madly,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Tightrope Ride” (which he wrote with Ray Manzarek), and “Runnin’ Blue” (which featured Robby making his singing debut by soloing the chorus of the song).
The last of the four to join the band, Robby came into the Doors at a point of transition. Previously known as Rick and the Ravens, the band was a blues band put together by Ray Manzarek and his brothers. But with the addition of Jim Morrison on vocals, Ray’s brothers had pulled out citing that Jim was too intense for them to work with, and while the Doors would keep its feet deeply solid within the realm of blues music, they were starting to float into the acid rock arena that was dominating the clubs on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. Although Robby’s background was primarily in jazz, as well as traditional flamenco style, he fit into the group quickly.
At this point, Jim Morrison was doing all of the song writing, but as their popularity grew, he felt that the band didn’t have enough material and encouraged his bandmates to write something. Robby was inspired to try and thought he would write about one of nature’s four elements – Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. Inspired by The Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire,” Robbie plucked out some bluesy chords and came up with the first verse of a song and its basic framework:
“You know that it would be untrue,
You know that I would be a liar,
If I were to say to you,
Girl we couldn’t get much higher.
Come on baby, light my fire.
Come on baby, light my fire.
Try to set the night on fire.”
Bringing it back to the band, Jim composed a second verse to the song, and Ray created that memorable opening organ riff which would be one of the greatest musical hooks in rock history. Add Morrison’s dramatic vocals, and allowing all three of the musicians to just go crazy on their individual solos, not only did the Doors create their biggest hit, but one of the best songs of the 1960’s. Personally, if I had to pick songs that have consistently been amongst my all-time favorite for the majority of my life, “Light My Fire” would be right near the top. It blew my mind when I heard it for the first time as a fifteen year old, and I’ve never stopped loving it.
Beyond being a killer guitarist and a decent song writer, Robby Krieger also has had the best track record of being the most likeable member of the Doors, and the one who seems to be the easiest to get along with. With the other three Doors having massive personalities, it seems that Robbie maintained alliances with the different members of the band though the years.
Jim Morrison respected him as a song writer, but was amazed by his skill at guitar, and during concerts he’d often crouch down and watch Robby’s finger work on guitar solos, especially during “Spanish Caravan” and “Roadhouse Blues.” Unfortunately, this odd habit would haunt both Jim and Robbie during one of the more dramatic moments of the Doors story when a photo of Jim watching Robby play was brought out in court at Jim Morrison’s 1970 indecency trial with prosecutors trying to lay claim that Jim was performing oral sex on Robby on stage (the claim was quickly thrown out of court). But as someone who didn’t play, Jim always seemed amazed by his bandmates’ musical ability, which is the main reason he didn’t go solo when approached by producers.
Robby and John Densmore were extraordinarily close during their time in the Doors, and John was even Robby’s best man when he married his wife Lynn in 1970. In John’s book “Riders in the Storm” he paints a picture of Robby as being the calm and collected voice of reason as John tried to navigate through the madness of the final days of The Doors, and Robby was very much a support to him. After the Doors officially disbanded in 1973, John and Robby formed a new group, The Butts Band, and released a pair of albums. A break in their friendship would take place in the 2000’s when John, alongside the Morrison family, sued Robby and Ray in trying to stop them from allowing the Doors music to be used in advertising campaigns and marketing as well as using the term “The Doors” in any current projects. While Ray and John never seemed to put their issues behind them, Robby and John reportedly buried the hatchet and they have been photographed together at events in recent years.
After the resurgence of the Doors popularity in the 1990’s as a result of Oliver Stone’s biopic on them, Robby and Ray came together again with The Cult’s front man Ian Astbury under the name “The Doors of the 21st Century.” Although they invited John to join them, he thought the project was cheap and insulting to the memory of Jim Morrison, and part of the legal matters listed above was in retaliation to this project. Eventually Robby and Ray changed their name to “Riders on the Storm,” and finally “Manzarek-Kreiger.” They continued to perform together until Ray’s death in 2013.
Last week Robby Krieger celebrated his 77th birthday, and is still active with concert dates throughout 2023. Although he seems to be a little slower on the guitar than he used to be, it should be recognized that his legacy in rock n’ roll goes far beyond just being The Doors guitarist. He might have been the quiet one, but the songs he brought to the band makes up an important part of the DNA of the group, and as the primary writer of “Light My Fire,” was a pivotal player in launching the Doors to fame.