A great fire has gone out with the death of Ray Manzarek Monday at age 74. More than four decades after the death of Jim Morrison ended the classic lineup of the Doors, Manzarek remains the most listened-to and admired keyboard soloist in rock history...even if that legacy was one he sometimes professed not to care that much about.
"You don't make music for immortality, you make music for the moment — for the sheer joy of being alive on planet earth," he said in 2009. Manzarek may not have courted immortality, but thanks to a set of recordings destined to be rediscovered by new generations of enthusiasts for decades and centuries to come, he's going to have it conferred upon him anyway.
As fans well know, he wasn't just a great organ and piano player, but a great bass player, too — of sorts. Lonnie Mack played a bit of bass guitar on the Doors' albums, but for the most part, the configuration was the same on record as it was live: no true bass, with Manzarek more than filling in the slack by playing with his left hand a Fender keyboard bass that sat atop the Vox organ he played with his right. Fortunately for the bass players of the world, very few other bands ever attempted to follow the Doors' example.
Here are a few of Manzarek's most memorable musical moments:
"LIGHT MY FIRE": THE OPENING RIFF
The tune was guitarist Robby Krieger's and the lyrics were Morrison's, but 90 percent of what makes the song is Manzarek. He sent the band out while he came up with the opening riff, which Morrison had the idea to also make the closing riff when the song lacked a proper ending. Krieger had written it as a folk-type song, whereas drummer John Densmore suggested bringing in a Latin or flamenco feel for the verses. Then, as the cherry on top, Manzarek went all classical on their butts...with a touch of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," too.
"All my classical studies came to fruition," Manzarek wrote in his memoir. "A simple circle of fifths was the answer. The chords were G to D, F to Bb, Eb to Ab (two beats on each chord) and then an A for two measures. Run some Bach filigrees over the top in a kind of turning-on-itself Fibonacci spiral — like a a nautilus shell — and you've got it. 'Eureka!' An illuminati moment... Cartwheeling into 'Light My Fire.' Leaping into history."
As critic Greil Marcus wrote of the first notes of the band's first single: "Announcing itself, announcing the song, announcing the band just after Densmore's first drumbeat, the piece Manzarek devised is thrilling — thrilling as a promise, thrilling as a thing in itself."
"LIGHT MY FIRE": THE SOLO
As if that riff weren't enough, Manzarek's soloing late in the song could last as long as six minutes, as heard in the example above. He might have actually saved a lot of '60s music fans from trying hallucinogens or joining cults: When you could get a quick trip to ecstasy with that little muss and fuss, who needed anything but a record player to join the blissful brigade?
"BREAK ON THROUGH"
The best example of Manzarek's piano-bass was the opening riff to this classic, which the keyboard player described as Ray Charles-inspired, even as Krieger was aping Paul Butterfield for the guitar part. If you're missing the more overtly organ-y Vox sound, don't worry: Manzarek's right hand gets as busy as his left hand before long.
"LOVE ME TWO TIMES"
The Beatles used harpsichords where you (or at least George Martin) might think they ought to go on a 1960s track. It was Manzarek's genius to offer a harpsichord solo — and a fairly psychedelic one at that — on an otherwise guitar-driven blues song about carnal excess. (So that's what all those Muddy Waters records were missing all those years.)
"WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER"
This epic closer to the Strange Days album featured Manzarek showing off the trademark Doors sound. Or was it trademark Herbie Hancock? Manzarek stated that he was inspired to come up with this part by the jazz man's "Watermelon Man." In the performance above, you can see that Manzarek still had the right stuff last year, playing in tandem with Krieger and a Morrison ringer.
"RIDERS ON THE STORM"
In the video above, Manzarek explains how he turned "Riders" from a cowpoke parody to a moody, jazz-inflected, blues-rock classic via some "rainy" electric piano riffing. This is one Doors song that does include an actual bass part, by session player Jerry Scheff; Manzarek assumed the part he'd written on a keyboard would be equally easy to play on a four-stringed instrument, until Schiff informed him just how finger-crampingly complex it was to recreate on bass.
The opening bars of the title track from the Strange Days album were so mesmerizing, Greil Marcus devoted an entire chapter in his book The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years just to analyzing the song's first seven seconds.
Bonus: The X YEARS
Manzarek discovered X, the greatest rock band to come out of L.A. after the Doors, and produced their first three albums — including a cover of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" on their 1979 debut. He generally stayed out of the group's way on record, but did contribute a few signature organ parts...and showed up for reunion shows in San Francisco in 2010 and L.A in 2012.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Ray Manzarek
- Jim Morrison