LOS ANGELES — When the Doors were still a fledgling quartet, and the band members were honing their chops playing five sets a night at the London Fog club in Hollywood, it wasn’t rock stardom on keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s mind as he and his three band mates laid down an extended jam for their debut album that ran more than seven minutes.
Manzarek was thinking more of one of his jazz heroes when he cribbed some of John Coltrane’s ideas from the saxophonist’s recording of “My Favorite Things” for his own solo in the song that would become the Doors’ signature hit, and one of the defining singles of the 1960s: “Light My Fire.”
“We loved that we were getting Coltrane played on AM radio,” Manzarek said years later. “I’m not sure how many people caught that, but I’m sure some did.”
Manzarek, who was responsible for the piercing electric organ sound on “Light My Fire” and most of the L.A. group’s cornerstone songs, died Monday at a medical clinic in Rosenheim, Germany, after a lengthy battle with bile duct cancer. He was 74.
While studying film at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965, Manzarek (pronounced man-ZAIR-ek) met fellow student Jim Morrison and they decided to start a band built around Morrison’s poetry. They enlisted drummer John Densmore, whom Manzarek had met in a transcendental meditation class, and Densmore in turn introduced them to his friend Robby Krieger, a guitarist.
Beginning in 1967, the Doors charted 15 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Hello, I Love You,” “Touch Me,” “Riders on the Storm” and “People Are Strange,” up through Morrison’s death in 1971 at age 27. All six of the group’s studio albums released during Morrison’s lifetime made the Top 10 of the national sales chart, the biggest hit being “Waiting For the Sun,” which spent four weeks at No. 1 in 1968.
“I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and band mate Ray Manzarek today,” Krieger said in a statement. “I’m just glad to have been able to have played Doors songs with him for the last decade. Ray was a huge part of my life, and I will always miss him.”
“There was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison’s words,” Densmore said through a spokeswoman. “Ray, I felt totally in sync with you musically. It was like we were of one mind, holding down the foundation for Robby and Jim to float on top of. I will miss my musical brother.”
Creating a band with a neophyte singer, jazz-inclined keyboardist and drummer and a guitarist steeped in flamenco music wasn’t by any stretch a formula for rock ‘n’ roll success. Manzarek wound up pulling double duty, handling the bass parts by way of a keyboard bass, which he played with his left hand while working the organ accompaniment and solos with his right.
“We actually intended to have a bass player, and auditioned a couple of them,” he said in a 2011 interview with the Jerusalem Post. “With the first one, we sounded like the Rolling Stones, and with the second, for some reason, we sounded like Eric Burdon and the Animals. We knew there was no reason to have another band sound like either of them, so we kept looking.
“Then we auditioned at a club in Los Angeles, and I saw the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass onstage, which belonged to another band. And I thought, ‘Eureka, that’s it. I’ll play that,’” he said. “It worked out fine because it’s basically the way I play the keyboard anyway, with my left hand playing the bass line. And it kept the Doors as a four-side diamond, rather than an evil pentagram.”
After graduating to headlining at the Whiskey A Go-Go, then the hottest rock club in Los Angeles, the Doors released their first single, “Break On Through (to the Other Side).” It got as high as No. 126, in early 1967, but “Light My Fire” shot to No. 1 just two months later, and the Doors were suddenly rock stars.
Manzarek not only supplied the signature opening riff of “Light My Fire,” he delivered the otherworldly tacked-piano sound that gives “People Are Strange” much of its eeriness, and the haunting, moody electric piano lines that fuel “L.A. Woman.”
Morrison’s death shook the three surviving band mates to the core. They recorded two albums without Morrison — “Other Voices” in 1971 and “Full Circle” the following year — but then called it quits.
Raymond Daniel Manczarek Jr. was born Feb. 12, 1939, in Chicago, and later simplified the spelling of his last name by dropping the “c.”
After the Doors wound down, he recorded in the 1970s with his own band, Nite City, and worked up a rock treatment of Carl Orff’s choral work “Carmina Burana.”
In the 1980s, Manzarek had a strong hand in the emergence of another quintessential Los Angeles band when he produced all four of the original studio albums for the punk quartet X.
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What drew him to throw in with the punk movement, which drew much of its energy and audience by rebelling against the classic rockers like the Doors who had preceded them?
“The punks were the next generation after the psychedelic era,” he said. “After the stoners came the punks, and it was great. I thought it would be bigger in the U.S. than it was, but it never really caught on like it did in England. The punk scene in California, though, was as exciting as what happened in the ‘60s.”
In 1991, after Oliver Stone’s film biography of the group came out, Manzarek was openly critical of his portrait of the band. “Oliver Stone has assassinated Jim Morrison,” he said at the time. “The film portrays Jim as a violent, drunken fool. That wasn’t Jim.”
Manzarek said in interviews that he’d rather that Morrison had lived and that they would still be making music together, even if it meant the singer had to sacrifice the mystique that developed around him because of his death at such a young age.
“If you’re going to become a legend — one of the immortals, a god,” Manzarek said in 2011, “then you have to die. That’s the tragedy.”
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Manzarek and Krieger resumed touring over the last dozen years, playing Doors music with other singers and drummers — including the Cult’s lead singer Ian Asbury, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Police’s drummer Stewart Copeland — which prompted a lawsuit by Densmore against Manzarek and Krieger to stop them from touring under the Doors’ name. Densmore eventually won.
In the course of that proceeding, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for $40 million, alleging that he had rejected proposals to use the Doors’ songs in commercials. Densmore’s new book, “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial,” details both suits and his staunch opposition to advertising uses of the band’s music. Manzarek, the book says, supported such uses as a way to keep that music in front of new generations of listeners. The countersuit was dismissed.
Manzarek also became an author, writing “Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors” in 1998 and “The Poet In Exile” in 2002.
He is survived by his wife, Dorothy; a son, Pablo; three grandchildren; and two brothers, Rick and James Manczarek.
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