Remembering Ray Manzarek, the legendary and influential founder and keyboardist of The Doors

He was born on this day in 1939

Remembering Ray Manzarek, the legendary and influential founder and keyboardist of The Doors

Raymond Daniel Manczarek, Jr. was born in Chicago on February 12, 1939. Highly regarded as one of Rock’s most influential keyboardist, Manzarek founded The Doors with Jim Morrison in 1965, but prior to that, he already had accumulated almost nine years of music experience. Ray Manzarek was a trained classical music pianist, he gained interest for Jazz and Blues during his teenage years in the 1950’s and by the time he was 17, in 1956, he already had organized a charity concert with Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck at the DePaul University in Chicago, where he was a student. In the early 1960’s he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. Unable to acclimate to the curriculum, he transferred to the Department of Motion Pictures, Television and Radio as a graduate student before dropping out altogether. He then enlisted in the Army Signal Corps as a camera operator but was instead assigned to the highly selective Army Security Agency as a prospective intelligence analyst in Okinawa and then Laos. While in the Army, Manzarek spent most of the time playing music, smoking and growing cannabis. He was discharged as a private first class after several months of undesignated duty. According to Britt Leach, a fellow Army Security Agency enlistee, Manzarek “had collected an entire duffel bag” of cannabis specimens during his service in Laos; this may have been used to fund his subsequent graduate education. He returned to the U.S in 1962 and re-enrolled in UCLA’s graduate film program. During this period he met his future wife Dorothy Fujikawa and fellow student Jim Morrison. While in UCLA, Manzarek was one of the few students that actually appreciated Morrison’s experimental films and the two became friends during that period. Forty days after finishing film school, thinking they had gone their separate ways, Manzarek and Morrison met by chance on Venice Beach in California. Morrison said he had written some songs, and Manzarek expressed an interest in hearing them, whereupon Morrison sang rough versions of “Moonlight Drive,” “My Eyes Have Seen You” and “Summer’s Almost Gone.” Manzarek liked the songs and co-founded The Doors with Morrison at that moment. Later joined by Robby Krieger on guitar and John Densmore on drums, The Doors final line up was complete, however, the band lacked a bass player and after auditioning several potential bass players, they decided to keep the band as it was, with Manzarek doing the job on his Fender organ, playing the bass simultaneously with the piano and organ notes, making him a stunning case of musical talent and concentration, while often also singing back vocals, or in some cases, live mostly, the lead. Manzarek brought the Jazz and Classical music elements to The Doors signature and unique sound, their first No.1 hit “Light My Fire”, features the famous organ intro based on Bach, his organ sound is a distinctive and essential element to recognize The Doors music. The Doors became one of the biggest (and most different) Rock bands during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Under their Elektra contract they released six studio albums between 1967 and 1971 including their debut “The Doors”, “Strange Days, “Morrison Hotel” and “L.A Woman”, all Rock absolute timeless classics. They scored hits such as “Break On Through (to the other side)”, “Light My Fire”, “Strange Days”, “People Are Strange”, “Moonlight Drive”, “Love Me Two Times”, “Hello, I Love You”, “The Unknown Soldier”, “Five To One”, “Touch Me”, “Roadhouse Blues”, “L.A Woman”, “Riders On The Storm” and “Love Her Madly” among others, they also were one of the first bands to introduce long epic songs in Rock such as “The End” and “When The Music’s Over”. Ray contributed with lead vocals for The Doors songs “Close To You” (only performed live) and “You Need Meat (Don’t Go No Further) that serverd as B-Side for the 1971 single “Love Her Madly”. Despite their success, the band became also one of the most controversial, specially due to Jim Morrison’s antics on stage and his unstable personality. In 1969, after the infamous Miami concert where Morrison allegedly exposed himself, The Doors became targeted and their album “The Soft Parade” was boycotted by radios and TV’s, also most of their U.S promotional tour was cancelled. By 1971, the band was coming to an end when Jim Morrison decided to move to France during the final stage of mixing and production of the album “L.A Woman”. The album was successful and gave The Doors back their popularity, however, it wouldn’t last long, Morrison died suddenly at age 27 in his Paris apartment. The band opted to continue as a three piece with Manzarek on lead vocals, but they failed to achieve the same success they had with their original line up. The last two albums, “Other Voices” and “Full Circle”, features Manzarek on lead vocals in almost every songs, in 1973 the band decided to call it quit. He went on a brief solo career and released two albums in 1974, “The Golden Scarab” and “The Whole Thing Started with Rock & Roll Now It’s Out of Control” which were mildly successful. He then formed the band Nite City that featured vocalist Noah James and later Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison. With the Punk era blooming, The Doors became one of Punk Rockers favorite bands, and Manzarek produced the first four albums of the seminal punk band X, also contributing occasionally on keyboards. During the 1980’s he released one more solo album “Carmina Burana” in 1983 and sided with several artists on different projects such as Echo & the Bunnymen and Iggy Pop. During this period, The Doors music had a strong resurgence and several compilations as well as reissues of The Doors albums were made available and presented to new generations of fans. In 1991 Oliver Stone produced the biographical movie “The Doors”, starring Kyle Maclachlan as Manzarek, however, Ray was not satisfied with the way Stone made the movie and portrayed the band’s history. In 1993 he was inducted to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as a member of The Doors. He released his biography “Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors” in 1998 and in 2000, after playing VH1 Storytellers with The Doors original line up, minus Morrison who was replaced by several other singers including Scott Welland and Ian Astbury, Manzarek starts planning a comeback of the band to live concerts, however, drummer John Densmore refuses to participate in what Manzarek and Krieger named “The Doors Of The 21st Century”. With a new line up that includes The Cult singer Ian Astbury, the band kicks off a successful world tour in the early 2000’s, bringing The Doors music to new generations of fans around the world. During the mid 2000’s they change their name to “Riders On The Storm”, in result of a lawsuit put up by Jim Morrison’s estate and John Densmore. They keep playing together until 2012 as Manzarek-Krieger. Around early 2013, Manzarek was diagnosed with a rare cancer called cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) and traveled to Germany for special treatment. On May 20, 2013, Manzarek died at a hospital in Rosenheim, Germany, at the age of 74. At 9:31 on May 21, The Whisky a Go Go and other clubs where the Doors played on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, dimmed their lights in his memory. An invitation-only memorial service (Ray’s celebration of life) was held on June 9 in the Napa Opera House. The Doors music keeps influencing new generations of musicians and serving as soundtrack for the life millions around the world, Manzarek was the working mastermind behind The Doors, he kept the legacy running during decades after Morrison’s demise, but that was only possible because their music is truly timeless, and Ray Manzarek played a key role on it.

Watch “Light My Fire” by The Doors performed live at the Hollywood Bowl, 1968, featuring a Manzarek organ solo

Watch Ray Manzarek in 2011 telling how “Riders On The Storm” was composed by playing his parts of the song

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Listen to the latest The Doors compilation from 2017, featuring all the singles releases on Spotify

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