Even if your entire existence was nothing but a thought in the back of someone’s mind in 1967, chances are you’ve heard the Doors’ Light My Fire, and can probably even name-that-tune after hearing just the jangly organ intro. The man behind those keys? Ray Manzarek, a founding member of the Doors, who helped create some of the most recognizable songs in rock music—heck, in music, period. Manzarek passed away yesterday in Germany of complications from bile duct cancer. He was 74.
Born in Chicago in 1939, Manzarek had two main hobbies (or at least two he talked about) as a kid: piano and basketball. He quit the basketball team in high school after his coach wouldn’t let him play forward or center, and has said (in maybe the best argument for anyone looking to quit something) had he not left the team, he may never have been a member of the Doors. Manzarek does, however, make a brief appearance in the HBO basketball documentary, The UCLA Dynasty, in which he impressively combines his interests by spending most of his screen-time making Doors references. It’s clear from the way he clumsily tries to describe a basketball play as “breaking on through,” that Manzarek made the right choice.
In a statement about Manzarek’s death, Doors guitarist Robby Krieger said:
Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison were the two most unusual people I have ever known…[Ray] always saw the good side of people, and that was his genius. He was the only guy at UCLA that saw something good about Jim. Everyone else thought of Jim as a phony or worse. He saw the genius of Jim’s words and the rest is history.
That history starts on the West Coast nearly five decades ago. Manzarek first met Morrison in 1962 while studying film at UCLA, but the two didn’t think to join forces in a band until they graduated in the summer of ‘65. In a 2007 interview for The Republican, Manzarek says what could be considered the first Doors practice took place on a beach in LA, when he and Morrison chanced to meet:
[Morrison] told me he’d been writing songs. I asked him to sing one for me. He was very shy and very hesitant but he finally got up his courage and in a haunted, deep, dark, kind of melodic voice, soft and haunting, he began to sing Moonlight Drive. I thought those were the best lyrics I’d heard for a rock ‘n roll song, all bluesy and funky and I could hear all the jazzy kind of Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith organ things I could do behind it.
It was this pairing of Morrison’s brooding, baritone vocals with Manzarek’s psychedelic piano playing that became the backbone for the Doors’ sound. This synergy is obvious on the recording of Moonlight Drive, released on the Doors’ sophomore album, Strange Days: “Let’s swim to the moon/let’s climb through the tide,” Morrison growls, and Manzarek’s piano seems to trod jauntily along in agreement. Though Jim Morrison is the name that gets the most head nods of recognition, Manzarek’s keyboards were an essential foil to the Morrison sound. There’s a kind of aural tension between the two that’s as exciting as it is confusing. Manzarek’s signature Vox Continental combo organ weaves in and out of Morrison’s soundwaves like some omniscient woodland sprite, imploring the listener, “We Could Be So Good Together.”
After Morrison’s death in 1971, Manzarek, along with Krieger and drummer John Densmore recorded two more albums (Other Voices and Full Circle) with the Doors. But even after the Doors dissolved, Manzarek’s resume goes on: he continued to play music in the band Nite City with Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison. He backed acts like Iggy Pop and Echo And The Bunnymen, produced an album by the Los Angeles hardcore band X, and even collaborated with Weird Al on his Doors parody song, “Craigslist.”
When asked at the age of 68 to look back on his life, Manzarek said:
The only thing I would have changed would be I wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about Jim going to Paris, knowing that he was going to his death, to the end of his life…I would have tied him up and said, ‘You’re not going to Paris, not to that place man, you are going to stay here with us.’ Other than that, it was amazing, what a ride, what a life. Looking back on it, this has been a fantastic life.
Check out the Doors playing “Light My Fire” live in 1967, below.