Ray Manzarek, the outspoken founding member of the Doors, has died in Germany at the age of 74, after battling bile duct cancer. His keyboard playing became the defining sound for the legendary and groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll group, a band who came to represent the counter-culture, the darker side of the 1960’s, the yin to the yang of the flower-power hippie movement.

Ray Manzarek

Manzarek was born in 1939 and grew up in Chicago, where he quickly became a lifelong fan of that city’s indigenous blues, a sound which came to define his style of playing, first on the piano and eventually on the Fender Rhodes and Vox Continental organ.

Manzarek attended UCLA’s film school, where he met fellow film student Jim Morrison, and cultivated a friendship that in 1965 would spawn the creation of the Doors, with Jim on vocals, along with Robbie Krieger on Spanish flamenco style guitar, and John Densmore bringing a heavily jazz-influenced style to the drums. They would go on to become one of the most celebrated groups of the late 1960s.

In an era typically dominated by bands that relied heavily on guitar as the basis of their sound, the Doors stood out because of Manzarek’s unique sound; he typically used a Vox Continental organ as the lead and rhythm instrument playing the melody with his right hand, and (because they did not want to audition another band member) Manzarek used his left hand to play bass on a Fender Rhodes piano bass that he would place directly atop the larger Vox. Manzarek also sang backup vocals and occasionally took over and sang lead if Morrison was indisposed. The band became the toast of the L.A. scene and still are cited as the quintessential sound for that city. Manzarek’s uniquely eerie, bluesy sound perfectly accented Morrison’s haunting vocals, and became the soundtrack for generations of fans.

The Doors stayed on top of the charts throughout their brief five-year career, producing six iconic studio albums before Morrison’s death at age 27 of heart failure in 1971. The group tried to stay together in the ensuing years, with Manzarek doubling on vocals as well as organ and a newly-hired bassist and rhythm guitarist, but it was not to be. The Doors ultimately disbanded in 1973.

Ray Manzarek

Manzarek and the other former Doors put out various jazz, blues, classical, and pop albums over the years, and also produced films and other works. They reunited in 1979 to put music to poetry sessions Morrison had recorded in 1969 & 1970, a project which would be released as An American Prayer; it was a hugely successful album that brought the band back in vogue. In 1990, Oliver Stone brought the Doors back into the mainstream with a feature-length film that combined fact with a slew of fiction. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

In 2002 Manzarek and Krieger formed “The Doors of the 21st Century” after legal battles with Densmore over the use of their original name and disagreements about the proposed direction of the band; they later toured as Manzarek-Krieger. Manzarek released a great biography on his life in and out of the Doors in 1999, entitled Light My Fire, and recorded a superb autobiographical CD entitled Doors: Myth & Reality.  In 2001, Manzarek released The Poet in Exile, a novel exploring the many urban legends about Jim Morrison faking his death. Manzarek released a second novel in 2006 called Snake Moon, which was a Civil War ghost story.

Krieger spoke of Manzarek’s passing in a press release:

I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my friend and bandmate Ray Manzarek today. 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.

Manzarek is survived by his brothers Rick and James, his wife Dorothy, his son Pablo, and three grandchildren. Instead of flowers fans have been asked to donate in Manzarek’s name to standup2cancer.org.

  1. Ray’s playing was a staple of The Doors. He’ll certainly be missed after such a long and fruitful career helping to create such haunting music. The Doors’ songs opened my mind to other realms of possibilities and cleansed my perception. I paid tribute to Ray when I heard of his passing by creating a new portrait of him and some melting doors which you can see on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2013/05/in-memoriam-ray-manzarek.html Drop by and let me know how The Doors influenced you too.