“It was the kind of place where you could start a religion or plan a murder”: the story behind The Doors’ Morrison Hotel album cover

The cover of the Doors’ Morrison Hotel album
(Image credit: Elektra Records)

Henry Diltz took the photos for many iconic album covers in the 1970s: the Eagles, Jackson Browne, CSN&Y and many more. But Diltz finds people are most impressed when they find out he was responsible for the images on The Doors’ fifth studio album. The typical reaction, he says, is one of admiration mixed with disbelief: “Dude! You did Morrison Hotel?!”

The hotel that gave the 1969 album its name was a low rent, single-room occupancy guest house located at 1246 South Hope Street in Downtown Los Angeles (rooms £2.50 a night, according to a sign in the window). The Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek discovered it while he was driving around. “It was the kind of place where you could start a religion or plan a murder,” said Manzarek in 2005.

Doors frontman Jim Morrison was attracted to this run-down hotel, which originally opened in 1914. Remembers Diltz: “We came inside and I told the guy at the desk: ‘We want to take a couple of pictures, we’ll be just a minute.’ He said: ‘You can’t unless you have permission from the owner.’”

At first Diltz was going to stand the band outside, in front of the window that bore the Morrison Hotel logo. “It wouldn’t have looked as good,” he admits. “Then as I looked through I could see the guy leave his desk.” The band ran inside and “they hit their markers, none of it was planned – Jim was in the middle like that. Bang-bang-bang. One roll of film and they were out of there.”

The album itself was divided into two sides – side A was subtitled ‘Hard Rock Café’, while side b was subtitled ‘Morrison Hotel’. The former comes from the photo on the back cover of the album, featuring the exterior of a run-down dive bar named the Hard Rock Café, located in one of the less salubrious parts of Downtown LA.

“They shot the first part of the session and we decided to go have some lunch,” recalled Manzarek. “Jim said: ‘Let’s go down to Skid Row.’ So we go down there and what do we find but the original Hard Rock Café.”

The original album came in gatefold sleeve, with the inside photo featuring The Doors sitting at the Hard Rock Café’s square bar. Morrison holds a beer, though the regulars behind them seem oblivious to the band’s presence. The bar is long gone, with a corner store now located where it used to be, but the name lives on – the world famous Hard Rock Café chain reputedly took its name from photo on the back of the album, though neither Diltz nor art director Gary Burden got a cut. “We don’t even get free hamburgers,” jokes the photographer.

And the Morrison Hotel itself? That’s long gone too – the hotel closed years ago, and it has stood empty ever since as subsequent attempts to renovate it fell through. But there was some good news in December 2023 – the AIDS Healthcare Foundation bought the building with a view to reopening it as affordable housing, with both Diltz and Doors drummer John Densmore throwing their support behind the plan.

Originally published in Classic Rock issue 84 and updated in January 2024

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